Death by Fire? Probably Not: Fire deaths in the U.S. have fallen 90 percent over the past 100 years, a great and greatly underappreciated gain. How did it happen — and could we ever get to zero?
Freakonomics Radio: Death by Fire? Probably Not
As you can see from the graphic above (which comes from the illustrated edition of SuperFreakonomics), fire deaths in the U.S. have fallen 90 percent over the past 100 years, a great and greatly underappreciated gain. How did it happen — and could we ever get to zero? Those are some of the questions we ask in the latest Freakonomics Radio podcast, “Death By Fire? Probably Not.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the link in box at right, or read the transcript here.)
A pivotal moment in U.S. fire history came exactly 100 years ago, with the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory fire in New York City. It killed 146 people, most of them young immigrant seamstresses. Until then, fire-prevention priority was given to buildings, not people (in large part because insurance companies had more at stake with buildings). In the podcast, you’ll hear Robert Solomon of the National Fire Protection Association:
SOLOMON: “The Triangle Shirtwaist fire was kind of that watershed moment when everybody said ‘enough!’ You know, when you look at the building regulations at that time, many of them were really directed at preserving the building itself, the structure, and the contents, but the people, you know, [were] kind of not given a very high priority. So, Triangle Shirtwaist, clearly was the watershed moment that got everybody’s attention, said you know, what can we do, what should we be doing for this concept that we now refer to as life safety?”
Many improvements and innovations have followed. Probably the single-most valuable one: the widespread use of automatic sprinkler systems. As a result, big multiple-death fires have become much rarer. So when they do happen — like the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island in 2003 — they capture a lot of headlines and skew the way we think about fire. But the fact is that the median death toll in a fatal fire in the U.S. today is one; and 85 percent of all fatal fires happen in the home.
So that’s the next frontier: fighting fires in the home. In the podcast, you’ll hear a good bit from Dan Madrzykowski, a fire-protection engineer with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). One thing NIST is pushing for: automatic sprinklers in all new homes, a regulation that California has just adopted (which leads to cost complaints, of course).
MADRZYKOWSKI: “If all homes were sprinklered, we would anticipate that the death rate due to fires would go down by at least eighty-three percent based on these cost benefit studies. And the average loss per home would come down by seventy-four percent. So, I mean there would be a big impact with regard to individuals and their outcome, and their property, and their lives.”
Madrzykowski also points out that, as fire deaths decrease, so does vigilance:
MADRZYKOWSKI: “People don’t consider fire as a threat. If you were to tell people, you know, would you like to have a fire protection system in your home or a burglar alarm system in your home, I think most people would probably vote for the burglar alarm. … I think people really don’t appreciate, they don’t have a feel for, I have this little flame or this small candle, for example, and if that were to get tipped over, or the container were to break, and flame would spread to my sofa, or to my bed… they really don’t appreciate just how rapidly the hazard from that fire can build up and threaten their family and their home.”
Here’s a look at a couple of NIST videos (from 1996) showing how a living-room fire spreads sprinklers:
And without sprinklers:
There are still about 3,000 fire deaths each year in the U.S. The leading cause of fatal fires in the home? Cigarettes. That’s why fire-safety advocates have been pushing a “fire-safe” cigarette, which goes on the market in all 50 states this year. These cigarettes have been designed by manufacturers to self-extinguish if they’re not being smoked (as a hand-rolled cigarette would).
Even though he didn’t make it into the podcast, we also interviewed Chicago Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff. His grandfather and father were both firefighters (and the latter died in the line of duty). Hoff made the point that, even for all the progress, the life of a firefighter remains dangerous:
“The synthetics that are put into buildings now burn at a higher temperature. They burn quicker. So those are things that are working against us. You know, in an old building where you would have wood trim around a door, now it’s made of synthetics, it’s plastics. So it burns faster, and it burns hotter, and it burns quicker. So for us to get in and get people out, or for people even to exit the building is more of a challenge.”