Fire fatalities in Great Britain have gradually been decreasing over the last three decades but have now plateaued. This first phase of a research study investigating fire fatalities and serious injuries in Scotland has identified the types of people most at risk. Fourteen recommendations have been proposed that, if implemented, would be expected to further reduce fire fatalities and injuries.
Fire fatalities in Great Britain, which most commonly occur in domestic dwellings, have been reduced because of the increasing use of smoke alarms, the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations 1988 (as amended) and preventive measures such as Home Fire Risk Checks, that have all contributed to this decline as shown in Figure 1.
Fatalities have come down significantly in the last thirty years, but it appears that they have now plateaued and there is unlikely to be further significant reductions with existing interventions alone. It was proposed by a research group comprising the Fire Industry Association, Scottish Government, Scottish Fire and Rescue Services (SFRS) and the BRE Trust, that the rapid growth in recent years of ‘smart’ electrical technologies and related digital products may support further reductions.
The research group funded and assisted this study to understand the causes of fire fatalities and serious fire-related injuries in Scotland, with the aim of proposing solutions intended to reduce these in the future.
The first phase of a comprehensive investigation of fire deaths and serious fire injuries in domestic dwellings in Scotland, for the period from April 2013 to March 2017, has now been completed and is reported here. By analysing data detailed in the Incident Recording System (IRS), which is used by fire and rescue services to record incidents attended, key factors and common conditions leading to fatalities and serious injuries were identified.
The IRS data provided by SFRS for this phase of research work, included 19,645 fire incidents in total, 147 serious injuries and 126 fire fatalities. From a review of this data, focusing specifically on responses recorded by SFRS personnel to 38 questions, general trends have been analysed and observations made. The responses were reviewed to questions such as:
- What was the time and date of call?
- What type of property was involved?
- What was the cause of the fire?
- Was there any alarm system present? If so, what type?
- What type of room/compartment was the fire origin?
- Was ‘impairment due to suspected drugs/alcohol’ a contributory factor?
- What was the age of those involved in the fire?
For each question there are a number of possible options. For example, as shown in Figure 2 the options to ‘Location of fire origin’ are Kitchen, Living room, Bedroom etc.
In order to compare the relative involvement of each of these options in the three accidental domestic fire incident groups – i.e. all incidents, fire fatalities and serious fire injuries – the data are presented as percentages for each option. The number of incidents under each option has been divided by that option’s total and expressed as a percentage to enable quick and clear comparisons to be made. By showing the data in this way, the more the profile of fatalities or serious injuries departs from the profile of the total number of fires, the greater the influence of the option on the risk of death or serious injury.
A few examples, from the briefing paper, of the data analysed are presented here, starting with the responses to the location of fire origin (see Figure 2). Note that the numbers that appear in brackets in the Figures refer to the total number of incidents reviewed for that question.
Whilst the highest proportion (70%) of fires occur in the kitchen this is not where the greatest proportion of fatalities occur, but it is where the greatest number of serious injuries are observed. Both fatalities and serious injuries are proportionately higher when the location of the fire origin is either the living room or the bedroom.
The responses to the ‘Age of the victims’ is shown in Figure 3. It can be observed that there are no fatalities associated with those aged 16 and less, and fatalities are less likely for persons aged up to 60. Once this is exceeded, fatalities increase significantly with 60% of fatalities occurring in the 61+ years age range. The particularly high rate of deaths for those aged over 80 years, compared to the total number of incidents, should be noted. Serious injuries are less likely than the general trend for the majority of ages except in the 31 to 60 age range.
The responses to the ‘Month of the year’ is shown in Figure 4. The number of fire incidents remain relatively steady throughout the year at 8.5 ± 0.8%. However, a comparatively higher percentage of fatalities are observed during the winter months from November to March. There are significantly more serious injuries observed in the months of November and March.
Summary of findings
The review of the IRS data for serious injuries and fatalities reveals that the victims are generally people who are older or in some way vulnerable. Underlying factors such as falling or being asleep, having medical conditions or illnesses, or a temporary lack of physical mobility (chair-ridden or bedridden) all contribute. The victim is likely to be alone at the time of the fire. Most of the fires causing death or serious injury start in the bedroom or living room. The time from fire to discovery is also critical, with fires discovered sooner (before 30 minutes) more likely to lead to serious injuries rather than fatalities, and those discovered after 30 minutes more likely to result in fatalities.
More needs to be done in terms of reliable early detection and suitable intervention, to either delay the development of the fire or to notify people – using technology – so they can take suitable action at the early stages of the fire.
With these points in mind, the following technologies and solutions are proposed that, if implemented, could potentially help to protect vulnerable people in the future.
1. provide warnings from smoke alarms to mobile phones;
2. increase the sensitivity of smoke alarms at night;
3. monitor temperatures from multi-sensor or smoke alarms incorporating thermal sensors to provide warning of cold temperature;
4. link high-risk domestic premises to an Alarm Receiving Centre;
5. extend combined fire detection and watermist systems to provide greater personal protection;
6. write a code of practice to ensure optimum installation of combined fire detection and watermist systems;
7. use video analytics technology for zone monitoring to enhance security, fire detection and safety;
8. research the underlying causes of electrical fires and any signatures they may give off prior to a fire being present;
9. develop an Electrical Appliance Current Monitoring Device to trip the voltage supply to electrical appliances when pre-defined signature characteristics of current draw criteria preceding a fire are met;
10. encourage manufacturers of white goods to review the types of fires that their appliances are causing and develop new ways of preventing these;
11. provide online material for users of the IRS database to ensure a more consistent approach to the recording of data – particularly in free fields;
12. include, during the next revision of BS 5839-6, a recommendation to consider fitting smoke or heat alarms to any utility space separate from the kitchen that contains electrical white goods;
13. raise awareness of the need to fit any loft space containing parts of a solar photovoltaic system, or other live electrical items, with smoke alarms;
14. have a government campaign at the start of winter to encourage the public to look out for neighbours and themselves.
An aging population with increased vulnerabilities from conditions such as dementia will need protecting in ways that are increasingly more sophisticated than those used to date for able-bodied people capable of responding to alarms – and acting appropriately to save their own lives. The expectation that a fire-alarm system will activate, and that the Fire and Rescue Services will be informed and arrive to tackle the fire in time to save lives may often be unrealistic for elderly and vulnerable people.
The next phase of research work will focus on specific details for each of the 126 fire fatalities, which will involve a detailed analysis of the fire investigation report generated for each fatal incident. Further information on the person’s status, surrounding circumstances, the fire’s behaviour and the cause of the fatality will be reviewed. The recommendations proposed so far will be examined for each fire investigation report in order to assess their potential effectiveness.
This research work demonstrates that, with a broad group of collaborating expert stakeholders, this type of study can lead to relevant and practical outputs that the stakeholders can then participate in implementing. BRE is now aiming to complete similar collaborative studies in other countries to identify what fire-safety measures may be applied in different regions of the world.
For more information, go to www.bregroup.com/firesafetyresearch