The Miraculous Decline in Deaths by Fire

New York City is on track this year to break its record for the fewest number of deaths by fire. According to the New York Post:

The department attributes the drop “to an aggressive campaign of fire-safety education and quicker response times,” said Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano.

Maybe. But how about acknowledging the massive technological progress — in building materials, lighting, and many other factors — that has made fire so much less of a menace than it used to be?

To me, the decline of death by fire is one of the most underappreciated success stories of the past 100 years. There are many others, of course. We modernists are very good at pointing out the big problems in contemporary society, but we are even better at failing to acknowledge the progress that has been made, whether in public safety, medicine, food supply, etc.

How drastic is the decline in fire deaths in the U.S.? Consider the following graphic*:

For a time, American history was regularly punctuated by catastrophic fires in which hotels and nightclubs, apartment blocks, and even entire cities burned to the ground. But the death rate due to fire has fallen an astonishing 90 percent over the past century, thanks to a variety of factors: the phasing-out of live-flame lights and fireplaces; the proliferation of fire extinguishers, smoke detectors, and sprinklers; the professionalization of firefighting; fireproof building materials and stricter building codes; and better medical treatment for fire victims.

I am curious: what do you consider the most impressive but underappreciated measures of progress in the past 100 years?

*From our new illustrated edition of SuperFreakonomics.


I would have said the can opener but that wouldn't really fit into the 100 years time line.

So instead I'll give a little attention to the all to often ignored computer mouse without which all of our lives would be a little more tedious and quite a bit more annoying.

I'd also mention Prozak whose effect on the population of the world would be too much to go into here in this tiny comments box.

Eric M. Jones

Death by fire is certainly due to many factors, perhaps the decline in cigarette smoking (and the parallel decline in the availability of matched and lighters) being the biggest.

As for the greatest underappreciated measure of progress in the last 100 years is the elimination of smallpox and (almost) polio.


Indoor toilets


Perhaps a broader measure of what you're discussing above: building codes and their enforcement. The fact that Seattle had a 6.8 earthquake in February of 2001 (when most people were indoors) and no one died is a testament to the value of strict enforcement of modern building codes.

Every time large numbers of people die in a 'natural' disaster, this is one of the first things I think about. How many people would have lived if their governments hadn't looked the other way?


I'm going with "Remote Control".

BTW, as I get on in age I'm not consuming much if any sliced bread - so sliced bread is way overrated.

Calvin Graham

I remember a university lecturer telling the class that when you look at the development of glass transparency/attenuation in order to make fibre-optic cables, the progress made by the researchers (transparency at the end vs at the start per meter) was greater than any other percentage/ratio style achievement in human achievement


The fact that despite more cars and people road deaths in developing nations have been mostly falling.

Every long weekend in New South Wales, Australia the death toll on the roads makes headlines. In easter 1997 they trialled double demerit points on people's licences for speeding etc (while keeping fines the same). Instead of the typical 15 or so deaths on the roads during the three days there were NONE. So they implemented this every long weekend from then on. Deaths rose again but there's probably 70 or so people alive today who wouldn't have been without this.

I know about this programme acutely as I lost my licence on the 1997 easter weekend because of it!


I'm with #2 Eric Jones. Lack of ignition sources contribute the most to catastrophic deaths (match in a night club) and the garden variety smoker dying in bed/couch at home from lighting on fire.

Also the wide spread use of electric stove tops (including the under glass type) helps too from the catch a room or self on fire while cooking deaths.

Tom Meixner

Basic public sanitation related to water has been the greatest public health improvement in the last millenia. Clean drinking water and proper waste disposal have dramatically improved public health. IN the developing world access to clean water and proper disposal of human waste continues to be a key step in the process of human development.

Eric Hamilton

I think that one of the biggest items is clean pure water being available to all at a reasonable price in large quantities. Makes the concept of being clean OK.


The timing of this post is not great. Just yesterday 40 people died by fire in Israel, in what is the largest civilian catastrophe ever there.


The reduction in communicable diseases is possibly the greatest improvement. Even with a more mobile, interconnected global society the number one cause of death isn't a transmitted disease. Even animal diseases are mitigated greatly. Diseases like SARS, hoof and mouth and the bird flue could have decimated whole regions before stopping, now small numbers of people/animals are infected before organizations like the WHO and the CDC step in before a pandemic is reached.

Joe Allen

A TED presentation by Hans Rosling showed some incredibly powerful visuals on the improvement of living conditions in the developing world.

What was formerly the 'third world' has made fantastic progress, despite the perception that they are being left behind.


The greatest progession in the past 100 years is the vaccine. I'll put the population increase & infant/child mortality statistics vs. the decline in fire death statistics any day.

tom scanlon

Antibiotics. Kids used to die of ear infections. Antibiotics have probably saved more people than have died from AIDS or any other epidemic, but most people couldn't even name the man who invented them: Alexander Fleming.
Thanks, Mr Fleming.


Eradicating smallpox

Adrian Corscadden

Vaccination should definitely be on the list of successful, but under appreciated advances. It is one of the most successfulness public health measures of all time, but is being attacked by idiots like Oprah and Jenny McCarthy.

David Wright

Electricity made available to virtually all homes and businesses in the developed world. I think the developing world will not have caught up until the same is true for them.

I am not thinking just of connecting to the grid as we do now, but that new ways of distributing/receiving electricity will speed this change.

David L

The commercial availability and adoption of affordable food refrigeration caused a huge spike in life expectancy, for a couple of reasons. Most obviously, preventing spoilage helps to reduce incidence of deadly foodborne pathogens/illnesses. But also, the ability to ship and store produce that was regionally out of season meant that people could have nutritionally balanced diets (rather than surviving on potatoes, cured meat, and canned pasteurized semi-food through the winter). That meant better overall health and resistance to other deadly diseases.


Contraceptives, antibiotics, vaccines, chlorine treatment of public water supplies, seat belts in cars (my father had Sears install a set of seat belts in our 1961 Dodge Lancer wagon), and the ongoing effort to eradicate smoking, have all improved public health, safety, and welfare over the past century. As an EMT, I can tell you that the systems developed by the Americans in Vietnam for getting their wounded to the operating table within the "golden hour" have been adopted nationwide by emergency medical services, and have saved untold civilian lives. Unfortunately, the establishment of rational priorities is beyond our national scope. Perhaps we would do better if we had less, and therefore thought more.