Recent fires shed light on home fire problem

High profile fires in Philadelphia and New York highlight the need for additional community outreach and education

This article was originally posted on NFPA. It has been reprinted here with permission.

By James Pauley

The horrific residential fires in Philadelphia and the Bronx thrust fire and life safety in the United States into the spotlight. And while the stories out of these two cities are absolutely heartbreaking, the collective, heightened interest in the protection of people and property that we’ve seen among policymakers and the public may be somewhat encouraging – if it prompts needed changes and more awareness.

Overall, we have made great strides in reducing the home fire problem. In fact, the recent tragedies we saw in Philadelphia and the Bronx present a stark contrast to the fire progress that has been documented over the last four decades and summarized in last year’s seminal Fire Safety in the United States report. That research picked up where the landmark America Burning research left off and highlighted substantive declines in hotel, hospital, and school fires over the years. Conversely, home fires have become more deadly as home fire escape times have dramatically decreased – due to a variety of factors. Combustible building materials and synthetic contents in homes burn hotter and faster. The danger of fire is compounded by open floor plans that are prevalent in newer homes and the lack of sufficient fire safety measures in older buildings, large and small.

Emergency personnel bring a fire victim to an ambulance during a high rise fire on East 181 Street, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in the Bronx borough of New York.
Emergency personnel bring a fire victim to an ambulance during a high rise fire on East 181 Street, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in the Bronx borough of New York. (AP Photo/Lloyd Mitchell)

The headway made in these and other occupancies is, in large part, due to an effective policy and regulatory environment that sponsored and supported specific fire, electrical, building, and life safety guidelines and systems. But that same level of accountability and leadership has not been as evident when it comes to solving the fire problem we have today.

In 2017, the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute surveyed U.S. residents about their perceptions surrounding government roles and responsibilities for building, fire, and life safety efforts. American citizens overwhelmingly conveyed that they expect and trust that local, state, and federal policymakers are acting in the interest of safety.

Two key takeaways from that outreach show that 74 percent of respondents trust their state and local leaders to adopt the latest fire and electrical safety codes for safety in residential construction, while 65 percent trust those same officials to maintain code requirements, and to not weaken them by removing provisions that apply the latest knowledge and safety advancements.

Government officials everywhere should be guided by these survey sentiments, as well as this month’s devastating fires, to focus their energies on:

  • Earmarking funds for safety infrastructure, staffing, and protocols
  • Using and enforcing current editions of fire, life safety, building, and electrical codes
  • Inspecting and testing systems to address issues before things take a turn for the worse
  • Ensuring there are ample professionals to enforce codes
  • Prioritizing community risk assessment
  • Making the right decisions in the true interest of safety, not special interests, convenience, or cost-cutting

Policymakers, however, cannot stem the tide of tragedies alone. Everyone plays a role in safety, making it more important than ever to educate the public about their true risk to fire and the steps they can take to increase their own safety. And yet, the biggest obstacles we see, time and again, when it comes to reducing loss are the issues of over-confidence and complacency.

The reduction in most fires over the years has led policymakers and citizens alike to erroneously think that fire is no longer a significant issue in our country. There is a prevailing mindset that tragic incidents like the ones that recently occurred happen to other people, in other communities, and in other homes. Until, of course, it happens to them. These sentiments were highlighted in results of a survey from the American Red Cross, which showed that people think they are more likely to win the lottery or to be struck by lightning than to have a home fire.  

That over-confidence toward fire presents serious risks and concern, and should intensify our efforts to educate the public about the importance of fire and life safety.

One of the slim silver linings of the two high-profile fires is that they have captured the public’s attention for a short time and have brought fire safety to the forefront. I strongly encourage everyone to capitalize on the recent groundswell as catalysts for change, and to better educate communities about the critical importance of:

  • Properly installing, testing, and maintaining all smoke alarms in the home
  • Developing and practicing home escape plans that include closing doors to rooms, hallways, and stairwells when exiting to slow the spread of smoke, heat, and fire
  • Using heating equipment safely
  • Looking for and advocating for the increased use of sprinklers in all buildings and homes

If the occurrence of two of the most fatal home fires in the last 40 years over the course of four days and just 100 miles apart does not serve as a substantial wake-up call, what will spur policymakers and the public to take action? The time has come for changing people’s perceptions of risk and proactive strategies for fire prevention and response. The best way we can do that, at this moment in time, is to challenge our government officials and citizens to take fire safety seriously.

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