Fighting fire with facts

Measures to improve education and prevention could save lives in Maryland

February 04, 2010|By Andrea Gielen and Alicia Samuels

The fatal fire last month in East Baltimore that claimed the lives of four members of the same family is a tragic reminder of the toll of home fires on Baltimore families. From 2002 to 2006, more than 200 Marylanders lost their lives to residential fires, and many more were seriously injured. Factors associated with fatal home fires -- such as high density housing and use of alternative heating sources -- mean that Baltimore City suffers a disproportionate share of fire fatalities in Maryland.

On the day of this fatal fire, we, along with our colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy, held a briefing before the state Senate's Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee to introduce a new publication targeted at policymakers: "Preventing Injuries in Maryland: A Resource for State Policy Makers." The purpose of this policy resource is to educate Maryland legislators on some leading causes of injuries in Maryland -- including home fires -- and highlight policy solutions grounded in state-of-the-art science. To our knowledge, it's the first time in Maryland that injury researchers have developed a tool specifically to educate state policymakers on the burden of injuries and to offer evidence-based solutions.

Maryland law requires homes to be equipped with at least one operating smoke alarm; however, the Maryland fire marshal estimates that more than half of homes are not protected by working alarms. More resources are needed to ensure all Maryland residents have access to functioning smoke alarms and to education on how to prevent house fires. Canvassing neighborhoods -- such as the program where Baltimore City firefighters check smoke alarms and distribute free alarms to residents -- is one good approach. The availability of new lithium-battery smoke alarms that last 10 years holds promise; however, more funding for fire prevention services is needed to ensure all residents have access to these services and state-of-the-art devices.

Working smoke alarms reduce the risk of dying in a home fire by at least half. However, as those following The Sun's coverage know, the Baltimore Fire Department reported that the home where the four family members died actually had working smoke alarms. So while they are instrumental in saving lives, additional fixes to the problem are needed.

Home sprinkler systems are a promising solution. Fires that occur in homes with sprinkler systems are less likely to be deadly, cause less damage, and reduce pollution and water usage.

Maryland is a leading state with regard to the percentage of population living in jurisdictions where new homes are required to have fire sprinkler systems. As reported in "Preventing Injuries in Maryland," there have been no reported fire deaths in a sprinkler-equipped home in Prince George's County since 1992, the year the county required sprinkler systems to be installed in all newly constructed one- and two-family structures.

The 2009 International Residential Code includes a provision that all new one- and two-family homes be equipped with a home fire sprinkler system. Whether home builders must comply with this portion of the code is up to state and local lawmakers; however, some states have adopted this code statewide, ensuring builders in all jurisdictions install sprinklers in new one- and two-family homes.

While it's too soon to comment on the impact our publication will have on facilitating evidence-based policy decisions, we remain cautiously optimistic that the state's current fiscal and political climate bodes well for measures that prevent unnecessary medical costs and promote evidence-based decision-making. In this light, the current legislative session represents an opportunity to continue our field's long history of injury research informing policy to save lives.

Sixteen years ago, the same family that lost four members last week to fire had lost nine other members to a house fire in Southwest Baltimore. Breaking this cycle of fire-related deaths requires a commitment by our local and state leaders to incorporate what is known about effective injury prevention strategies from research into policy. Only then can we know we are doing everything we can to ensure Marylanders remain healthy and safe.

Andrea Gielen is a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of the school's Center for Injury Research and Policy. Alicia Samuels is director of communications for the center. Keshia Pollack and Shannon Frattaroli, both assistant professors with the center, contributed to this article.

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