By Rick Stoll
Other than those who work in the fire service, people don't usually think about the risks of fire — perhaps except when they see a fire truck going down the street. Those in the fire service, however, are focused and determined to achieve their mission to reduce fire injury and fatality rates, decrease property damage, and contribute to a community’s reputation as a safe environment for homeowners and businesses.
To understand how this mission can be achieved, we must first examine trends affecting the fire service and their resulting effects. In 1973, the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control delivered a powerful report to President Nixon that outlined America’s fire problem and future recommendations. In addition to horrific real-world examples, the report asserted, “Appallingly, the richest and most technologically advanced nation in the world leads all the major industrialized countries in per capita deaths and property loss from fire.” 1 As a direct result of the study, significant resources were spent on public awareness, prevention, fire service training, building code improvements, and research. Those efforts and other changing dynamics resulted in four major trends that have affected the fire service.
A major consequential trend is a significant decrease in fire frequency. Fire incidents have dropped by 57 percent since 1977, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). This statistic is even more pronounced when you consider a corresponding 41 percent increase in population. The decrease is primarily driven by nonstructure fires and residential structure fires, with a significant reduction in heating-related fires.
The biggest contributing factors were prevention activities and technology improvements, including public education, smoke alarm adoption, updated heating equipment, and the adoption and enforcement of stronger building codes. A review of detailed data and characteristics of the leading factors indicates that with the national focus on fire prevention having lasted a full generation, its positive impact has largely been realized. Therefore, without additional intervention, the decrease in fire frequency is not expected to continue.
Changes in both residential and commercial building contents, as well as in construction materials and methods, have had a significant impact on fire temperature and rate of burn. A recent press release from UL (a global independent safety science company) stated that “shifts in modern home construction and design are contributing to a new reality: Fires can become uncontrollable in less than three minutes and reach flashover eight times faster.” 2
This phenomenon is exacerbated by a change in room contents, such as the transition from cotton-based to foam-based furniture. Since the changeover has already occurred in the majority of homes, the increase in fire burn rate is not expected to continue.
New fire safety regulations to address this hazard are unlikely given the historic decrease in fire frequency and the associated public perception that the risk of fire is low. Without new regulations, product manufacturers will continue to focus on value and cost — with little attention given to fire safety.
Changes in building construction have increased the risk of collapse. New synthetic construction materials and larger homes with high ceilings and open floor plans are the primary reasons. Where older homes used interior structural support columns and walls, open plans employ truss systems that are much more likely to fail when elements are compromised.
The prevalence of building collapse will continue to increase as building stock trends toward a higher percentage of newer homes. Although half of all housing units are still “legacy” (that is, built before 1970), it is a dwindling number. As it is, firefighters are establishing new criteria for entering buildings that may be structurally unsound. Unless building and fire codes are updated to address this trend, the problem will only worsen.
The combination of faster-burning fires and an increased likelihood of collapse has resulted in an increase in loss per fire for both residential and nonresidential structures, according to NFPA data.
While the increase is particularly notable for residential fires, four primary factors have already helped curtail this increase:
Combining the reduction in fire frequency with the increase in loss per fire, total loss is decreasing. This is particularly apparent for nonresidential properties.
Given the expected future state of the aforementioned three trends, total fire loss is expected to remain stagnant for the foreseeable future.
Historically, fire departments have not had the budget or the desire to invest in technology. However, with the rapid acceleration of cost-effective technology, such as new media, telecommunications, and data analytics, innovative opportunities are emerging to improve fire department efficiencies. The significance of this acceleration is captured by what’s known as Moore’s Law, which asserts that computing power will double every two years. Given the 49-year historical accuracy of this “law,” fire departments will continue to face the opportunities and challenges technological change presents. While more data and better software tools are being developed, departments continue to work under another “law” — the law of dwindling budgets.
Fire departments are still developing their strategies to address those four fire trends. With reduced fire frequency, fire departments are shrinking and have increased their focus on EMS and other hazard-related emergencies. Total calls per firefighter increased from 9.8 per year in 1983 to 29.4 per year in 2012. However, fire-related calls per firefighter decreased from 2.1 per year to 1.2 per year for the same period. 3 As a result, firefighters have less live fire experience and less opportunity to hone their firefighting skills. At the same time, the escalating number of nonfire emergencies requires new training in a broader array of responsibilities.
Due to changing room contents and housing construction materials and layouts, firefighters must respond quicker and are at greater risk of injury from an increased risk of building collapse and exposure to carcinogens.
While prevention initiatives can still help address the fire service mission, fire departments will face diminishing returns associated with increased activities — and will need to quantify the benefits to receive the appropriate funding. The prevention effort with the greatest continued impact is public education. Future education is especially important to expose the seldom-publicized risks associated with new room contents and building construction and to improve the activation of smoke alarms.
Prevention activities that require partnerships beyond the fire service include a focus on sprinkler and cooking technology (and adoption) to help continue the decline of fire frequency and total dollar loss. While only 5 percent of American homes have sprinklers, they reduce the fire death rate by 82 percent and property damage per fire by 68 percent. 4 New cooking technology may prevent 75 percent of cooking fires with the use of temperature sensors that can prevent cooking materials from igniting.5 This technology is rarely used because of stove incompatibility, cost, and the perception of diminished cooking performance.
Other prevention opportunities include a greater focus on building codes and upholstered furniture standards. It is important that fire departments work hand in hand with building departments to facilitate adoption and enforcement of building codes that incorporate fire safety measures. A successful partnership can help fire departments achieve their mission.
From an operations and training perspective, fire departments can improve efficiencies with municipality partnerships, new technology, and data. Improved communications and better preplans can improve reaction times to fight faster-burning fires. Fire suppression strategies and training should focus on common fire types and causes, such as kitchen and vehicle fires. There is also a general need for updated training tools and requirements to account for new technology and reduced live experience. Finally, analytics and benchmarks can help provide specific information to improve grant applications, assess performance, quantify the department’s benefits to the community, and make informed decisions related to fire station coverage and local building code improvements.
While fire loss has decreased, insurance companies would benefit by understanding these trends and implications. Specifically, building codes and community prevention activities are having a greater impact on the risk of fire loss. Detection and immediate suppression is also improved with properly operating sprinklers and activated smoke alarms. Identifying methods to quantify the benefits of these increasingly import &nt factors will help more accurately price fire risk.
Rick Stoll is director of ISO Community Analytic Services.