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Fire Hazards

What's the Problem?

In 1997, 3,360 people died as a result of residential fires (about one person every two hours) in the United States. Fire- and burn-related deaths are the third leading cause of injury death among children between the ages of one and nine. Roughly 18,000 persons are injured in home fires each year in the United States.

The effects of fire are pervasive. Irreplaceable pets or possessions may be lost. The victims, even though unharmed, may become homeless and dependent on public assistance or charities. They may suffer emotional problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and fears of fire, flames, or smoke. For those injured in a fire, pain may be intense, and, depending on the extent of the injuries, recuperation may be long and difficult. While plastic surgery can be immensely helpful, scars may nonetheless be a problem.

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Who's at Risk?

Young children and older adults: in 1997, the highest fire-related fatality rates were for children younger than 5 years and adults over 65.

Males: in 1997, the fatality rate for men was 1.5 times greater than for women.

Blacks: age-adjusted fatality rates for blacks are more than twice those for whites. Black children under age 14 are more than three times as likely to die in a residential fire than are white children of the same ages.

Alcohol use and the resulting impairment may be the strongest independent risk factor for death from fire. One study found that intoxication contributed to an estimated 40% of deaths due to residential fires. Also, smoking is a common cause of residential fires and a leading cause of fire deaths.

Can It Be Prevented?

Certainly. Effective prevention strategies include installing smoke alarms outside sleeping areas and on every floor of the house (including the basement) and changing the batteries annually; making a family fire escape plan and practicing it; not smoking in bed; not leaving food on the stove unattended while cooking; not leaving burning candles unattended; and keeping matches, lighters, and flammable substances out of children's reach.

The smoke alarm is a vital home fire safety device when they work. The good news is that some 93% of U.S. homes have at least one smoke alarm. The bad news: nearly 25% of those alarms don't work. People whose alarms don't work most often report that they disconnected or removed the battery to stop nuisance alarms, or they forgot to replace the old battery. CDC suggests using smoke alarms with lithium-powered batteries that last up to 10 years and a hush-button feature that silences a nuisance alarm. If these long-life smoke alarms are not available, alarms that use a regular 9-volt battery are a fine alternative provided the battery is changed at least once a year.

Tips for Scripts

  • EDUCATE viewers about the importance of making a family escape plan and practicing it every six months. In a typical home fire, people have only about two minutes to get outside. During a fire, children often try to hide in a closet or under beds where they feel safe rather than going outside.
  • INFORM viewers about the importance of having working smoke alarms, of replacing the batteries in smoke alarms once a year, and of not removing the battery because of a nuisance alarm.
  • INFORM viewers about alcohol use as a risk for fire-related injury.
  • REMIND viewers about basic fire prevention messages: when cooking, don't leave food on a stove unattended; never leave young children alone in the home; don't smoke in bed or leave burning cigarettes or candles unattended; keep space heaters at least three feet from anything that can burn, such as furniture, bedding, and clothing, and don't leave them on when you go to sleep.

Case Examples

  1. Twelve-year old Judy is cooking supper for herself and her 9-year old brother, Tim; their mother is not yet home from work. Tim is watching cartoons. Judy shouts for him to come and set the table. He ignores her. She tosses a dish towel down near a burner and goes to get Tim to come and help, but gets interested in the cartoon instead. As they watch TV, the towel catches fire and soon ignites the wooden cabinets in the kitchen. The kids hear the smoke alarm, run in, and find half the kitchen in flames. Judy shouts to Tim that they need to get outside, but Tim grabs a small kitchen rug and tries beating the flames with it. He is burned on his face, neck, and arms. Judy grabs him from behind and pulls him out the back door to safety. Judy thinks the fire is her fault and feels responsible for Tim's burns and the house in flames.
  2. Six-year old Carter learns about fire escape plan when a fireman speaks to his first grade class. During supper that evening, Carter tries to tell his dad, mom, and two older brothers about needing to make a fire escape plan, but they ignore what he's trying to say, talking about their own day. Carter tries getting louder, but his brothers tell him to pipe down, and they continue talking. Carter bangs his glass on the table and shouts, "Does everybody just want to burn up?" The family is suddenly quiet. Carter says, "We need to know how to get out of this crazy house if there's a fire," and he tells them what he's learned about how to make a plan, where to meet outside, and needing to practice it. After supper, the family draws up a plan, pretends there is a fire in the kitchen, and escapes from the house, meeting out front under a large tree.
  • Page last reviewed: February 8, 2011
  • Page last updated: February 8, 2011
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