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Community Focus
by Tom Kiurski

Survey says: Fire prevention message isn't working

Survey data shows that most people do not understand the threat of fire and harbor dangerous misconceptions

By Tom Kiurski

Editor's note: As we progress through Fire Prevention Week, it is important that we not simply go through the motions of open houses and school visits. Despite the wide-eyed nods from out community members, fire-prevention messages are difficult to hammer home, as this column shows us.

The fire safety messages keep coming, but surveys reveal that too many people are under a dangerous misconception. In a nationwide survey, 79 percent of Americans feel safer from fires at home than in a public building. An additional 9 percent feel equally safe in both locations. 

The truth is that home fires outnumber all other building fires by more than three to one. In addition, most fire deaths and injuries occur in the home. Public buildings are subject to tough fire-safety regulations and inspections, whereas most homes are not.

As public fire-safety educators, we know about these misconceptions, and we battle them daily. The following movie clip from the movie Backdraft shows why many may believe that smoke is not harmful.

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Two ways out
On average, someone in the United States dies in a home fire every 169 minutes. A full 66 percent of American claim they have a fire escape plan, but only 35 percent of those with a plan claim to have practiced it. 

As you know, making up a fire-escape plan during a home fire is far too late. The concentrations of dangerous gases will not allow them to think clearly. A plan must already be in place, and practice helps make the behaviors permanent.

One-third of American households surveyed believe they would have 10 minutes before a fire in their home would become life threatening. We know that this is far from the truth. 

Given the fuel loading in most homes, chock full of plastics and synthetics, a small fire will grow out of control in two minutes or less. That is illustrated beautifully in the following video:

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Practice often
We must encourage our residents to practice their fire escape plan during the daytime hours and again at night when they are normally sleeping to make sure that everyone knows exactly what to do when the smoke alarm sounds. 

Telling children there will be a fire drill before they go to bed can be as effective as a surprise drill. Some family members don't wake up to the sound of smoke alarms, and they are usually children who will need an adult assigned to assist them. 

Statistics back the need for nighttime practicing. More than half of all home fire deaths result from incidents reported between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. but only 20 percent of home fires occur between those hours. 

Although children five and under make up about 7 percent of the country's population, they account for 12 percent of the home fire deaths. This give them a risk almost twice that of an average person. 

Older adults are also at greater risk of dying in a home fire than the population at large. Adults 65 and older face a risk twice that of the average person, while people 85 and older have a risk that is more than four times that of the average person. 

It is important that your residents know to have plenty of smoke alarms — at least on every level in the home. They must be tested monthly and the batteries must be changed every year at a minimum.

Adults should practice crawling low with their children to stay under smoke and moving to the closest exit. The doors must be closed once the family is through them to limit the spread of fire. Once outside, they should meet at the family meeting place, and never re-enter the burning building. 

The lessons are important, and we must seek out ways to educate our residents — video clips, such as these, are a good starting point.

About the author

Tom Kiurski has been in the fire service since 1981. He is the Training Coordinator and Director of Fire Safety Education for Livonia, Mich., Fire & Rescue. He has served as a firefighter/paramedic, engineer and lieutenant prior to his appointment as the training coordinator. He has earned an Associates Degree in Fire Science from Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Mich., a Bachelors Degree in Fire and Safety Engineering Technology from the University of Cincinnati and a Masters Degree in Public Administration from Eastern Michigan University. Tom teaches fire service-related courses at local colleges and fire academies. He has presented at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis seven times, as well as numerous state and local conferences. He has written more than 300 articles on fire safety education and training that have appeared in various fire service publications. Contact Tom at

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Jeff Allen Jeff Allen Wednesday, October 10, 2012 4:26:54 AM Everyone looks at me like I'm from another planet (maybe?) when I've said for years that our fire prevention message is not getting through. We still lose too many people in residential structure fires. When the smoke alarm activates and the third element kicks in (denial) so much of the 3 - 5 minute escape window is lost, and so are many of our citizens as a result. I don't care who you are and what department you're with, our public just isn't getting the message. Unlike in parts of Canada where you can be fined for not having working smoke alarms in your home, we can't tell our citizens what they must have in their 'castle'. That's why we must have residential sprinklers, period. Lots of work to be done in this area....stay safe.
Don Porth Don Porth Wednesday, October 10, 2012 3:33:36 PM The biggest reason the message doesn't get through is because the fire service fails to teach it. Stick on badges, coloring books, and tours of a fire engine are not educational techniques. It is public relations at its best, entertainment at it's least. Education is as much a professional discipline as specialty rescue teams, paramedic services, or haz mat response teams. Until education is given similar status and resources, it will likely fall short.
Lisa Garvich Lisa Garvich Thursday, October 11, 2012 8:33:31 PM Continues to feel like we are beating a dead drum...if they let us do what we do...firefighters would not be needed as much.
Earl Diment Earl Diment Tuesday, October 16, 2012 3:54:17 PM It's interesting I was just reviewing some great materials being developed to teach the fire service to work with minority populations. One of the points I just finished bringing up in feed back is the need to very clearly differentiate between PR and education for the fire service. It's easy to mark down numbers of attendees but it really doesn't give us anything. So ditto Don, and Lisa your right although I might state it a bit differently, "they wouldn't need to fight fires as much". What I always wanted to see was the line putting me out of a job by incorporating prevention education into their job description...after all it's already in their mission statement.
Wanda G. Willis Wanda G. Willis Tuesday, October 16, 2012 6:47:15 PM I agree with many of the comments but would like to add that not only is the fire service failing to teach the right messages to the public, but it is also failing when teaching new recruits. Prevention education should be given as much time and priority as firefighting and EMS during training. Firefighters should be knowledgeable and supportive of prevention and educational programs. Fire education must be an integral part of the fire service and until that changes how will we ever change the public's perspective of how to stay safe when they see that fire personnel haven't bought into prevention?
Sharon Angle Sharon Angle Tuesday, October 16, 2012 8:21:26 PM Agree - prevention dollars are quite effective - however it is not sexy and is therefore put on the back burner. Don't ever see that changing - life is stupid sometimes!

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