According to “U.S. Fire Loss for 2009,” a newly released report from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an estimated 3,010 deaths occurred in 2009, representing a decrease of 9.3 percent from 2008. About 85 percent of all fire deaths occurred in the home.

Firefighters in the United States responded to 1,348,500 fires, of which 480,500 occurred in structures and 868,000 took place outside of structures. Among structure-related fires, which decreased 6.7 percent from 2008, 377,000 (78 percent) were in residential structures, and 103,500 happened in non-residential structures.

“The reduction in fire related deaths in residential occupancies as reported by NFPA is proof that the inclusion of properly operating smoke alarms and smoke detectors serves the intended purpose of increasing life safety in residential occupancies,” Larry Mann, chairman of the Fire-Life Safety Committee, Electronic Security Association told SDM. “When these devices are installed properly and maintained according to the fire alarm code they are effective and will continue to reduce fatalities as their use increases.”

Report author Stephen G. Badger writes, “Smoke alarms have been proven effective in reducing the risk of death in home fires. The most effective arrangement is to use interconnected multiple-station smoke alarms that are supplied by hard-wired AC power with a battery backup. These should be located outside each sleeping area, on each level, and in each bedroom.” He adds information on testing smoke alarms and replacing batteries and points out that NFPA recommends monthly testing of residential smoke alarms.

“Independent studies have compared both smoke alarms installed by electrical contractors, which are usually ionization type, and smoke detectors installed by alarm contractors, which are usually the photoelectric type, and found that the speed of detection between the devices is only seconds,” Mann relates. “Either device will increase the life safety of the occupants in the protected building by the early detection of fire conditions and the onsite notification of the occupants.”

The NFPA report also examined the incidence of catastrophic, multiple-death fires, assigning 21 of the total 1,348,500 fires to this category. These are “defined as a fire or explosion in a home or apartment with five or more fire-related deaths; or a fire or explosion in all other structures, as well as outside of structures (such as wildfires and vehicle fires), that claimed three or more lives,” per the report. According to the report, 2009 had the second-lowest number of such fires in the past 10 years, which occurred principally in structures without functional smoke detectors and alarms. The year may have gotten off to an ominous start with a New Year’s Day fire that killed six people and injured three, but at 103, the number of catastrophic fire-related deaths in 2009 is the lowest ever recorded, NFPA said. The highest incidence of multiple-death fires occurred in residences, as it has in previous years. In 2009, there were 10 such fires, nine in single-family homes and one in an apartment building. There were 59 deaths in catastrophic residential multiple-death fires in 2009; 25 were children under six years old.

“The price of including fire detection and reporting systems in our living environment is minor when it is weighted against a single human life, especially when that person may be a friend or family member,” Mann believes.

Of the 10 residential structure fires, only one structure had a confirmed operational smoke alarm. Of the six that had information about the presence and functionality of automatic smoke detection equipment, only three structures were equipped. One of those smoke alarms did not operate, the second’s performance was unknown, and the third was functional. There was no available information about why there was no evacuation in the home that had the working alarm. The other three structures did not have smoke alarms; 18 deaths resulted from those fires including nine children under age six.

The report points out that, “all but one of the fires broke out between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.” Minimizing the threat of night-time fires is one of the principal functions of smoke alarm systems. Mann explains that, “The advantage of having the system style smoke detector comes from the added benefit of a 24-hour monitoring service to provide the appropriate notification to the responding authorities and the service contract for the NFPA-recommended inspection and testing to insure functionality of the system.”

Five catastrophic fires took place in non-residential structures in 2009, including a homeless shelter, group home, boarding house, refinery gasoline storage tank and a food preparation plant. Three of them had information on fire detection equipment. One structure — a boarding house — had operational heat detectors and smoke alarms which warned occupants. Another property had a smoke alarm system that was rendered inoperable by an explosion. A third did not have smoke detection equipment.

The full report by NFPA and more fire statistics are available on the NFPA website.

With contributions from Sabrina Gasulla, Associate Editor