Those are the key findings in a new state-by-state analysis of fire death patterns by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The study found that although death from fire has dramatically declined overall, from 5,804 deaths in 1980 to 3,347 in 1999, there are huge variations from state to state in how many people die.
The states with the highest fire death rates in 1999 were Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, South Carolina and West Virginia. Those with the lowest rates were New Hampshire, Hawaii, Utah, Colorado and California. But every state had a lower fire death rate in 1999 than it did in 1980.
The differences among states are explained chiefly by the characteristics of the population. The highest fire death rates were in states with a higher proportion of adults who lack a high school education, who smoke or who are underpriviledged.
A high fatality rate does not mean that state and local fire officials are doing a poor job. At the same time, though, a state can lower its death rate without changing its population.
The experience of South Carolina illustrates this point. South Carolina had the nation's highest fire death rate in 1988 and 1989. Then it introduced a statewide fire-safety program that emphasized smoke-alarm installation and fire-safety education. By 1991, the state's rank had dropped to sixth place. Right after the program lost its funding, the death rate went up again, and by 1993, South Carolina had the nation's second-highest fire death rate. The program has since been restored.
"What this study shows is that fire deaths can be prevented. They're not inevitable," said the report's author, John R. Hall Jr., Ph.D. of NFPA's Fire Analysis and Research Division. "When a community reaches out to educate the public and provide the tools to be safe, lives are saved."
Universal fire safety education in schools and compliance with modern consensus fire safety codes and recommended rules for safe use of home products such as heaters and candles, all are additional steps that have saved lives in every state for every group of people, he added.
The study found four of every five fire deaths occur in the home. But many could have been prevented if there had been working smoke alarms on every level of the home and outside all sleeping areas. The study recommended every household should practice a home fire escape plan that includes two ways out of each room, unobstructed and easy-to-use exits, a meeting place outside, and a posted emergency number for the fire department. It also noted home fire sprinklers cut the chances of dying in a fire by more than half.
For more information, visit NFPA's Web site at www.nfpa.org.