In the year 2006, 19% of all reported fires occurred in one- and two-family structures; however, these fires caused 66% (2,155) of the fire deaths in the US1. In addition, more than 25% of firefighter on-duty deaths are associated with residential fires2. This means that approximately 25 firefighter deaths occur during responses to residential fires each year, since on average, there are about 100 on-duty firefighter deaths annually3. Despite the fact that these figures represent improvement over the last 30 years, they continue to be appalling. Such losses are unacceptable.
Since the 1970’s, USFA has promoted research studies, development, testing, and demonstrations of residential fire sprinkler systems and smoke alarms. These efforts, in concert with heroic efforts by many organizations and individuals, have resulted in the adoption of requirements to install smoke alarms in all new residential construction. In many jurisdictions, the retrofit of smoke alarms into existing residential occupancies has been mandated. Together, these efforts have saved many lives.
The results have been different, however, with respect to residential fire sprinkler systems; only a few jurisdictions have mandated their installation in new construction, and none have mandated retrofit of existing one and two family housing stock. The Center for Fire Research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology has studied the impact of both smoke alarms and sprinklers in residential occupancies4,5, and estimates that:
Much has been written about the reduction of residential fire deaths due to improvements in building codes and the installation of smoke alarms. Without a doubt, these have had a substantial impact on the home fire problem. The annual number of fire deaths in residential occupancies continues to decline. The trend in fire death data, however, shows that the number of residential fire deaths is declining at a slower rate over the past 10 years than it did in the period 1977 through 1995.
Full-scale fire tests in residential settings suggest an explanation for this slowing in the rate of decline in residential fire deaths. The available time to escape a flaming fire in a home has decreased significantly (i.e., from 17± 6 minutes in 1975 to 3± ½ minute in 2003)6. This decrease in time to escape has been attributed to the difference in fire growth rates of the representative samples of home furnishings used in the two studies6. In short, it appears that a fire involving modern furnishings grows faster than a fire involving older furnishings. The practical impact of this finding is clear – smoke alarms alone may not provide a warning in time for occupants to escape a home fire.
The U.S. Fire Administration’s mission is to reduce life and economic losses due to fire and related emergencies, through leadership, advocacy, coordination, and support. In fulfilling this mission, we have carefully reviewed the data and the relevant research to formulate this official statement: