Survey Finds Americans Underestimate Their Risk of Fire

Oct. 11, 2004
A Fire Prevention Week survey from the National Fire Protection Association found that 3,925 people died in fires in 2003 – many more than in all natural disasters combined.

Choosing from a list of disasters, 31 percent of those surveyed said they felt most at risk for tornado, while only 27 percent named fire as the highest risk, followed by hurricane (14 percent), earthquake (9 percent), flood (9 percent) and terrorist attack (5 percent).

But among all those disasters, fires are actually more common – and many times more deadly. Fire departments responded to 1.6 million fires in the United States in 2003. While tornadoes average 70 deaths a year, fires killed 3,925 people in 2003, most of them in the home.

Fires also cause significant property damage, especially when compared with other disasters. In recent years, property damage from tornadoes averaged just over $1 billion and from hurricanes just under $3 billion. But the cost of fire damage was more than $12 billion in 2003, up 19 percent from the previous year, due primarily to the $2 billion in losses in the southern California wildfires.

NFPA commissioned the survey on fire preparedness as part of its annual Fire Prevention Week (FPW). Asked which kind of disaster they feel most prepared for, the highest percentage of respondents (31 percent) said they felt most prepared for fire. Their answers to other survey questions suggest they are prepared – but not prepared enough. Ninety-six percent have smoke alarms, a new high for the nation. But only one-fourth have developed and rehearsed a plan for escaping their home in a fire, a goal of public education efforts such as FPW.

The survey also points to other challenges. Small communities, poorer households and less educated households had lower rates of smoke alarm ownership. Only 8 percent of people whose smoke alarms went off responded as recommended – assuming there was a fire and leaving the house immediately. If most people have not practiced escape and do not react to fire by immediately starting to escape, then many will not escape in time.

"Fire remains a major cause of death, injury and property damage in this country," said NFPA President James M. Shannon. "We can prevent many of these losses. It's not enough to have a smoke alarm. You should make sure it's working and you should be prepared to get outside fast if it sounds."

According to NFPA's recent report, Fire Loss in the United States During 2003, fire occurs in a structure an average of once every 61 seconds. A civilian is injured in a fire every 29 minutes, and dies in one every 134 minutes. And four out of five fatal fires occur in the place where people feel most safe: the home.

Deaths from fire overall have been declining steadily over the past two decades. In 2002, fire deaths dropped sharply. In 2003, the death rate returned to previous levels, jumping 16 percent overall and 18 percent for deaths from fires in the home, according to the report.

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