Search the Site

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.