History repeated: Why children die in fires

There are concise, proven steps that will reduce the number of multiple-fatality fires, many of those victims being children

Something about a multiple-fatality fire (in this context, at least three children) leaves a mark on survivors and firefighters greater than those fires where only one or two die. That in no way lessens the death of those unfortunate people, it simply seems more tragic when more than two die.

When the deaths are children, the impact on us is even deeper. It may be that when three or more children are taken at once, as is so often the case, it is a salient marker for us as humans.

In the fall of 1987, four tragic fires in three states ended the lives of 28 children. In those four fires are common problems and insufficiencies that, to this day, continue to kill children and adults.

First, three things must be pointed out. Poverty played a major role in the four fires, as did a lack of basic fire safety knowledge, and there should be little doubt that residential fire sprinklers would have changed the outcome. Home fire sprinklers mitigate deficiencies in fire safety behavior and building construction that conspire to compromise life safety in a fire.

A detached professional analysis of those four fires yields a list of contributing factors, most significantly — no working smoke alarms, overcrowding that hindered escape, wood-frame construction lacking compartmented areas, and a general lack of knowledge of fire prevention among the victims' family members.

The U.S. Fire Administration documented the four fires in a technical report as part of the Major Fires Investigation Project. These stories come from that report.

Two deadly fires in Milwaukee
Fire of unknown origin started on Sept. 30, 1987 in a 93-year-old wood-frame house lacking smoke alarms. A city ordinance required smoke alarms in houses built before 1980, however in rental properties it was the responsibility of the occupants. Fifteen people occupied the dwelling: five adults and 10 children, most related to each other. All 10 children, plus two of the adults died in the blaze.

In just two weeks, Milwaukee had another fire tragedy to face. It was again an older wood-frame dwelling constructed 75 years earlier. The gas company shut off service due to unpaid bills leaving the occupants to seek alternative methods of heating the home in mid-October.

Unfortunately, the family resorted to using electrical space heaters to stay warm. The batteries in the existing smoke alarms were dead or removed by the occupants. While the mother of the children was in the hospital to delivery of a baby, a baby-sister watched the five children. The sitter and all five children died.

Holiday tragedies in Md., Ohio
Early on Thursday, Nov. 26, 1987 two young children playing with matches ignited a fire in a 50-year-old home located in Prince George's County, Md. Someone had disconnected the batteries of the smoke alarm.

A multi-generational gathering of family for Thanksgiving ended tragically after two children, ages two and four, each with a history of fire-setting awoke early and caused a fire. The school bag they set afire ignited a sofa. As the fire rapidly grew, the two youngsters ran to a bedroom to hide fearing punishment. The fire claimed the lives of a babysitter and five children; the two who set the fire survived.

With just a week to go for Christmas, on Dec. 18, 1987, in Pleasantville, Ohio an occupant left a pot of water boiling on the stove as she went to an upstairs bedroom to comfort the children. She fell asleep forgetting the boiling pot.

A smoke alarm installed incorrectly failed to activate; the fire and smoke extended to the second floor through an open stairway. Though the woman survived, the fire killed all six children. 

Children still dying in fire
Twenty-five years after those fires, we still have people living under similar conditions and firefighters are still attending multiple-fatality fires.

Fire prevention and public education efforts have grown and put a dent in the statistics. But during these difficult economic times, the conditions of the fall of 1987 are still with us as municipal budgets see spending on prevention and education slashed.

Multi-fatality fires claim children and adults in every month of the year. October, November and December are not exceptional in terms of fire deaths; they are used here simply for comparison.

In the United States in that specific three-month period in 2007, 15 children died in five fires; in 2008, 31 children died nine fires; in 2009, 12 died in three fires, and in 2010, 15 died in four fires. In 2011, 18 children died in multi-fatality fires — three children in a single fire in six communities.

A recent fire in Baltimore is similar in many ways to the four 1987 fires. In early October of this year, a fire on Denwood Avenue claimed five people: one adult and four children. When firefighters arrived, they encountered heavy fire and smoke coming from the first floor; the fire quickly extended to the second floor and attic.

Another resident suffered serious burns and two firefighters were hurt. One of the injured firefighters dropped through the second-story floor all the way to the basement, landing on another firefighter. Investigators found no working smoke alarms and determined that the fire was due to combustibles stored too close to a heating unit.

The recent Baltimore fire is hardly the exception. In October and November of this year alone, counting the Baltimore fire, 19 children died in multi-fatality incidents — three in Lake City, Iowa; three in Racine, Wis.; three in Orrington, Maine; three in Rapid City, S.D.; and three in Republic, Ohio.

Setting priorities
For all the apparent progress in the U.S. fire service — mainly in the form of better trained firefighters, better apparatus, better tactics, increased use of ICS, recognition of the critical need for strong leadership, and improvements in department administration — it seems we fall far short of where we really need to direct our energy and limited resources.

We should ask ourselves, at least periodically, if some of the focus and effort on being "combat ready" might be redirected and more effectively applied to making a real difference in the lives of those we purport to serve.

The organizations, lobbyists and elected officials who argue against residential fire sprinkler requirements in building codes can claim that the tragic fires that kill occur mostly in older homes and so sprinkler requirements for new construction would not have mattered.

That is true, if we put aside the issue of life safety in existing homes. However, their argument fails the straight-faced test of common sense and in doing so ignores empiric evidence.

There is one fact that stands without question, everyday, somewhere, fire sprinklers do their job to help save lives and reduce property damage and they do it minimal chance for failure. Getting fire sprinklers into existing buildings is problematic, not impossible or impractical, but definitely a challenge in terms of engineering and cost.

However, we have to do something now to ensure life safety in new homes for these structures will eventually become the older homes of the future where adults and children will face the risk of dying from fire.

The dynamic behavior of today's fires is different. Fires are more intense, developing high heat levels rapidly along with very toxic smoke. Your chance of escaping a fire alive today is less than it was, even with smoke alarms. It will become more evident in the coming years that we have to put fire sprinklers in new homes, to fail to do so is to risk the lives of many people, including firefighters.

Fire prevention works in the U.K.
It seems to work in the United Kingdom for Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service where the total number of incidents, residential fires, and fire deaths declined over the past five years. Merseyside's Community Safety Teams working with firefighters carried out a range of fire prevention work, including home fire safety checks, installing smoke alarms, and working with community members to provide safer methods of heating and cooking.

Fire safety efforts also focused on reducing anti-social behavior and arson by interacting with the community and its schools. Interestingly, there was an increase in the number of automatic false alarms, the department plans to introduce a new approach to automatic fire alarms with the goal of reducing the number of false alarms.

Like towns and cities in the United States, communities in the United Kingdom face challenges in paying for municipal services even Merseyside's fire prevention program has to face cuts. Reductions in funding may mean the end of the successful program.

If we don't address the common problems and insufficiencies prevalent in the 1987 fires, we're most likely to suffer those losses again and again.

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