Five little brothers and sisters lost their lives in a fire at their home in Connecticut a few days ago. They join the approximately 6000 Americans who will lose their lives to fire in 1987. Along with Canada, the U.S. has the highest per capita death rate by fire in the world. The toll is twice the world average and four times the rate in countries with even better reporting of fire statistics than ours. Fires claim more Americans than all natural disasters combined and the bill is about $30 billion a year.
Philip Schaenman, a fire prevention specialist, says that Chicago, which is half the population of Hong Kong, has three times the fire deaths.
Baltimore has 13 times as many fire deaths as Amsterdam, a city of similar size. New York City’s fire departments make more trips a year than the whole country of Japan.
These comparisons are sustained year after year for decades. What is the explanation when the U.S. has by far the highest per capital installation of smoke detectors — now in 74% of all homes. And, there are fire and sprinkler cods for office, factory and apartment buildings.
Most fires and casualties occur in one or two family homes. According to a report in Engineering Times, 80% of fire fatalities are caused by smoke inhalation — including the deadly gases emitted from the burning synthetic curtains, furniture and other common household plastics. But other developed nations have similar synthetic home furnishings.
The answers to the question: why? appear to be three. First, our country is not organized as proficiently at the local level to prevent fires or to educate people how to react to fires when they are started. A neighborhood action group in Brooklyn, called the People’s Firehouse, has shown what can be done. In the past four years, with a data base that targets buildings likely to be fire or arson prone, the Firehouse claims a 64% reduction in fires. Executive Director, Fred Ringler collects information on building code violations, changes in ownership, tax liens and other signs of susceptibility. He and staff members visit owners, caution tenants and pressure City Hall.
A second reason for too many fires is that law enforcement is often lax and sometimes vulnerable to the corruption of absentee landlords. Fire frills, fire education materials and other tools of local fire authorities compare poorly in frequency and quality with those in other countries. Japanese television devotes much more time to fire safety messages and fire prevention programs than does U.S. television which likes to focus extensively on dramatic fires such as the destruction of the Challenge or the Dupont Plaza Hotel fire in Puerto Rico last year.
There is absent a governmental sense of a fire prevention and control mission in this country.
Third, the insurance industry is sitting too much on their derrier. You are seeing now millions of dollars spent on television ads about Underwriter’s Lab which is supported by insurance companies to test and approve electrical equipment. These are the same insurance companies which signed off on thousands of tall office buildings equipped with heat-seeking elevators that take you to the floor of the fire. In the mid-Sixties, these companies were distinctly cool to Congressional efforts to establish a major fire research and testing facility. This led one acerbic Congressman to accuse the fire insurance companies of needing a critical mass of fires for their business.
Science magazine reported recently that the Center for Fire Research at the National Bureau of Standards is perfecting a computer model of how a fire spreads and how fast. The Center hopes this will lead to practical advice to residents about how to escape a fire — for example, you may have only 1 to 3 minutes after it begins before a flash implodes the room, so don’t bother to stop and call the fire department.
In Nagasaki, Japan, women in one third of the households, reports Science, belong to fire prevention clubs. The law is tough on houses and buildings at risk.
In Washington, DC, last week, an eight year oad child burned to death and another 3 year old is in critical condition due to one of five fires in the past month at a public housing project. A neighbor, seeing the fire start, called the 911 emergency number and receive an all too common busy signal. Earlier, the 312 unit complex had been cited for many violations of the metropolitan fire code. Corrections were not as numerous.
The comparisns between the Japanese city and the U.S. capital tell a good deal of the tragic story of this country’s fire safety lag. Just another example of “we know what to do, but just can’t seem to do it.”