Death by Fire? Probably Not (Ep. 27)

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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?

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 via the box above, 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:

Horse-drawn fire engines on their way to the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, New York City. (Photo: Library of Congress)








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.

The burned remnants of a February 2003 fire at ‘The Station’ nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island. The deadly fire started when a pyrotechnics display during a concert set the club’s sound proofing aflame and took the lives of 100 people. (Photo By Douglas McFadd/Getty Images)

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).

A fire experiment in the NIST lab shows burn marks on upholstery from a regular cigarette (left) and an early “fire-safe” cigarette. (Photo: NIST)

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.”


Just wanted to give you a heads up, that for some reason I (and perhaps I'm not alone) cannot download it from iTunes on my iPhone4... (I've never had problems with your other podcasts).


As a Firefighter I applaud you for doing a piece on Fire Safety. I do
have a question for you though. I was wondering if you have data on
the number of house fires in a booming housing market vs a slow housing
market. It seems to me there was more house fires when the housing market
was on fire. Sorry for the pun.


Eric M. Jones

Suggesting self-extinguishing cigarettes seems unlikely to have much effect. Just having matches and lighters around and easily available is a large part of the problem. People smoking and falling asleep drugged or drunk is common.

I predict paraffin candles being replaced by LED candles is going to be a 20% reduction in fatalities.

The kids put Pop-tarts into the toaster and they caught fire under the cabinetry in our house. Who would have known?


Well, The 3000 accidents they write about are directly caused by bed smokers. So, it would definently have an effect


The argument made 100 years ago was that government should not intrude into the private conduct of business, that business was best at determining how it should work. Thus a building had no sprinklers. Thus it had 2.5 foot wide stairways. But it had a fire escape - which collapsed because it couldn't bear the weight of people actually fleeing a fire, killing some 25 people. And they fire hoses on each floor, except of course there weren't those awful government inspections to interfere in business so they didn't work.

This was the Progressive Era and anyone who listens to Tea Party-style rhetoric knows that is when America lost its way. So in Missouri, a state senator introduced a bill to allow children to work because parents are better than the government at determining what is best.

Symptoms of a society that has forgotten what life was like. I suggest we take them to the Boott Cotton Mill in Lowell, MA. The one room has 100 power looms but they turn on 3, just 3, for tourists - it's part of a national park.Even with ear plugs, the sound of just those 3 actually rattles your bones and shakes your insides. Now imagine children, some under the age of 10, most in their teens, most girls, running those looms, all 100 of them for hours at a time. I suggest we lock these people in that room and turn on the looms until they realize what horrible fools they are.



Induction cooktops would reduce those cookware fires to practically zero. The pans themselves are the only thing that actually gets hot and it will turn itself off if it gets too hot. I don't think you could actually even start an oil fire with one. The full size ones save a significant amount of energy over gas or electric and they are easier to use and control. The issue is that they still have a relatively high cost.


For some reason they must not be counting the World Trade Center deaths in 2001, because if they did that would be a significant blip in the chart.

Stephen J. Dubner

Rate is death by accidental fire; arson/crime not included

Ryan P

My home doesn't have any sprinklers but it does have 7 smoke detectors, which seemed like a lot for a 1200 sf home.

The house across the street (which is actually the same floor plan as ours) caught fire due to an errant candle a couple of months ago. Thankfully no one was hurt, but I can imagine the cost to repair has been significant (they've essentially rebuilt the whole thing from scratch). I'm sure sprinklers would have reduced the repair costs.

Tom C

Is home sprinklers the most cost effective way to save more lives? What is the additional cost to a new home? What is the cost to retrofit an existing building?

I don't know the figures, but I would guess that if the same money were invested in universal neonatal health care more lives would be saved. Long term benefits would likely be huge.


So does this mean it will soon be easier to purchase a bed that isn't soaked in toxic chemicals?


I have an uncle who has been wiring houses longer than any other living electrician in his region of Tennessee. In telling me his story, he spoke of how unsafe wiring used to be relative to today, and how it was not uncommon for houses to suffer from an electric fire. His elevation to State Electrical Inspector gave him the opportunity to help many less skilled electricians avoid these disasters by doing a better job wiring.

It might be that advances in regulations also played a big role in reduced fires.

adam smith

Those self-extinguishing cigarettes are a pain in the ass. If you put it down for just 15 seconds it goes out. I don't like having to relight 5-6 times, makes it taste funny. I have no sympathy for people that fall asleep while smoking. One of my cousins did this. You can't outlaw stupid.


Another point to make is that emergency medical services have drastically improved in recent decades, reducing deaths from fire. (This should also decrease homicide deaths in some instances, perhaps distorting homicide statistics.)

The British TV sci-fi drama Life on Mars features a 21st century police officer who is sent back to live in the 1970s. In one interesting scene the officer is with an injured person as the ambulance arrive, and he gives a list of basic First Aid information about the victim. The ambulance men simply shrug at this information, put the patient in the ambulance and drive away. Back then the ambulance drivers apparently had little or no medical knowledge: medical care started in the hospital.

Joel Upchurch

Another little heralded safety improvement is that the death per passenger mile for driving has dropped by a factor of 5 in the last forty-five years. It isn't as obvious as fire deaths since we drive a lot more, but even the absolute number of fatalities have dropped to the lowest level since we started keeping records.

It would be an interesting question to figure how much each of the various factors contributed to the decrease. Improvements in automotive safety, enforcement of seat belt and DUI laws and improvements in trauma car.

Gustaf Lawson

I am surprised the Cocoanut Grove Fire, Boston 1942, was not mentioned. Four hundred ninety-two people died in that fire. Aside from the high death toll, one reason this fire was so notable was that many people died just a few feet from the safety of the street. They were trapped behind a revolving door being pushed from both sides. This fire resulted in many fire code improvements, and I often think of this fire when I exit a building; one of the new requirements was that public buildings have doors that open out into the street.


How come there is not a rise in fire deaths in 2001 in your plot?. The "arson" attach to the WTC towers led to ~5000 casualties.


I have really enjoyed your podcasts. This one though really fell short of the mark. I kept thinking you all would get to a discussion on relative amounts of benefits, risks , and costs of all this extra effort to reduce deaths. I am not interested int he extra cost of putting sprinklers in my home, homes are already too damned expensive. And cooking is not rocket science. Why did you not get to the economics part of this discussion?


In this story, Dan Madrzykowski, discussed fire safe cigarettes and stoves that automatically turn off when unattendend. These ideas are decent, but these things punish the consumer because somebody else made an mistake. I don't believe every consumer should punished because of mistakes made by other people. Do you?

Anne E

I just listened to the "Death by Fire?" podcast and was really disappointed that Dubner didn't ask the obvious follow up question of the NIST guy: if deaths by fire have gone down so radically, and relatively few people (statistically, NOBODY, really) die from fires, why is there a whole government department, plus lobbyists, wasting their time on it? What's the average cost per life saved for all of that work? Probably more than the market would tell us those lives are worth!
The economist would ask: Is there value in working that hard to save incrementally so few lives? Or would those resources be better directed toward something that kills / endangers many more people?
Or. . . Is there an acceptable level of deaths at which we say "problem solved" and move on to a bigger problem?