U.S. fire deaths dip to record low Prevention termed key factor, as case of Jackson, Miss., shows

September 25, 1995|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

JACKSON, Miss. -- If fighting fire can be likened to a perpetual war, then this nation is winning -- gradually, quietly, but inexorably.

Last year, 4,275 U.S. civilians died as a result of fire, the fewest since standardized record-keeping began in 1913. The number is more dramatic when the nation's population growth is considered: 16.4 deaths per million population last year compared with 25.3 deaths per million just 12 years ago.

Why such a leap? While firefighter heroics and their contemporary techniques have helped -- horse-drawn wagons and bucket brigades being a thing of the past -- the answers don't hinge on what firefighters call "spraying the wet stuff on the red stuff."

Rather, it has been a thoughtful, multi-pronged attack in which battles are won by not having them waged in the first place.

It's called prevention.

"It's rare that a life is saved in a fire," said Joseph L. Donovan, fire chief in Jackson, Miss. "You have to be honest. When we get a call for a fire, we've already lost the battle."

In Jackson, a city of about 200,000 given the nickname "Chimneyville" -- only the brick towers were left standing after the city was burned three times by Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman -- officials have discovered that their best firefighting tool is the pre-emptive strike.

For many years, Mississippi has led all states in per-capita fire deaths. Last year, 102 people died in Mississippi fires, compared with 114 in Maryland, a state with nearly twice as many residents.

To help solve the problem, Jackson invested in community outreach, public service announcements and other techniques geared toward preventing fires in the first place. Many programs were aimed at children and senior citizens -- the groups most at risk of dying in a blaze.

Despite initial resistance from rank-and-file firefighters more accustomed to battling burning buildings, the effort seems to be paying off. In 1993, Jackson lost 10 residents to fire. Last year, the number was four. So far this year, three lives have been lost in fires.

Jackson's strategy, said officials with the U.S. Fire Administration, is a microcosm of what has succeeded across the nation.

"It's a much bigger issue than getting firefighters better hoses or more powerful pumps," said James E. Greene, the administration's chief scientist. "It's not about one technology or one source."

In 1913, about 8,900 died in fires nationwide, according to the National Safety Council. It was an era when more people lighted and heated their homes by flame, lived in rural areas, and were less likely to own a telephone.

Over time, major fires and the outrage that followed them led to reforms. The 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. in New York killed 146 garment workers and led to fire drills for factories, schools and theaters.

Boston's 1942 Coconut Grove nightclub fire, which killed 492 people, led to better exits in public buildings, emergency lighting and widespread use of automatic sprinklers. During this decade, the deadliest fire has been the one at New York's illegal Happy Land social club in 1990 that took 87 lives.

"You think of those large life-loss fires -- we haven't had any in recent years," said Thomas R. Brace, Minnesota's fire marshal and president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals. "The changes made a difference."

Success in reducing fire deaths has been linked to three factors: smoke detectors, engineering and public education.

Smoke detectors became comparatively inexpensive by the late and their increasing use has probably been the most decisive factor in saving lives. The chances of dying in a fire drop by 50 percent in a home with a smoke detector, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimates.

Engineering improvements have helped. Building and fire codes ensure that fires are less likely to spread. Federal regulations have forced consumer products to be more fire resistant.

Education viewed as critical

Because the vast majority of fires are a result of someone's actions -- or inaction -- education is considered critical.

When Jackson's Chief Donovan and his wife, Jody, a career fire safety educator and fellow Massachusetts native, arrived in Mississippi four years ago, an emphasis was almost immediately put on educating the community.

A former superintendent of the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md., Chief Donovan was initially hired to evaluate the Jackson Fire Department and he pronounced it one of the worst he had seen.

"The solution to the fire problem is in education," said Chief Donovan, 59, who manages a department of 400. "Many fire chiefs here still don't believe that."

With help from the NFPA, the Donovans' campaign has included sponsoring a "Learn Not To Burn" curriculum in schools and day care facilities, teaching youngsters such things as the "stop, drop and roll" when their clothes catch on fire.

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