The Fires That Threaten an Aging America

Older people are more vulnerable, but there's a lot that fire departments could be doing to keep them safer.
by | April 15, 2016

Samuel Johnson Jr.

Chief public information officer for the Baltimore Fire Department

Every year, cash-strapped local governments are faced with the decision of what to cut from their annual budgets. In many jurisdictions, fire departments continue to be at the center of those conversations, due in large part to the dwindling number of actual fire responses. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reported in February that fire departments nationwide responded to 1.2 million fires in 2014. That accounted for just 4 percent of their actual calls, most of which were for emergency medical services.

But before you think about downsizing your municipal fire department, here is one survey you should think about conducting: What percentage of your community's population is made up of baby boomers? In January of 2011, the oldest members of the baby-boom generation celebrated their 65th birthdays. According to the Pew Research Center, every day for the next 19 years 10,000 baby boomers will reach age 65. This cohort of Americans represents approximately 26 percent of the U.S. population.

Given those numbers, it shouldn't be surprising that the age distribution of home fire deaths and injuries is changing. The percentage of individuals 65 and older who were injured or died in fires rose from 19 percent in 1980 to 31 percent in 2011, according to an NFPA study, and the annual increase has seen minimal fluctuation since then.

The 1.2 million fires that occurred in 2014 in this country killed 3,275 people and injured another 15,775, and approximately 5,900 of those 19,050 victims were 65 or older. The statistics make clear that the chance of being injured or dying in a fire steadily increases as a person ages: Individuals 65 and older are three times more likely than the general population to be the victim of a fire injury or fatality.

As more boomers transition into this age demographic, the fire service will need to take a proactive approach, drawing on its successes of the past 30 years that have helped to reduce the overall numbers of fires to the low numbers we see today. Public education and community engagement focusing on the need for working smoke alarms and sprinklers in homes and businesses have been instrumental to that success, reducing both the occurrence of fires and the injuries and deaths that they produce. Interactive school and recreation initiatives have also introduced children to fire and life safety. It's time for the fire service to once again follow the data to provide messaging and public education that specifically targets an aging population.

Statistics show that the three leading causes of fire-related injuries and death among baby boomers are smoking materials, cooking appliances and heating equipment. To raise awareness of these dangers, the fire service will need to enlist ambassadors from the community, including the local media, elected officials and community leaders, neighborhood associations, and places of worship.

Advances in technology can also play an important part. One in three people over the age of 60, and fully half of those over 75, have difficulty with or cannot hear the high-frequency sound notifications that standard household smoke alarms produce. But devices that, triggered by smoke alarms, activate high-intensity strobe lights, pillow or bed shakers, a loud low-pitched sound, or a combination of these alerts are now available. Educating people about these devices should be on the agenda of every local fire service.

The goal of every fire department is to have zero fire-related deaths every year. By identifying the needs of the community, forming sustainable partnerships and dedicating the necessary organizational resources, there's a real chance that zero fire deaths can go from being the goal to being the norm.

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VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.

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