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House Fire Trend Continues Downwards

The latest government figures published in June 2013 shows the encouraging downwards movement of fires and fatalities in homes across the UK. The Fire Statistics Monitor England for April 2012 – March 2013 confirmed that domestic fire deaths were down by 14% over the previous year at 43 compared to 50 the previous year. This is partially explained by the fact that the Fire and Rescue Services attended 154,000 fires in 2012 – 2013, a reduction of 44% over the year before (only partially explained by the reduction in outdoor fires caused by the wet weather).

These statistics cannot mask the devastating consequences of fire as demonstrated graphically in the tragic Philpott case this year when 6 children died as a direct result of a deliberately started house fire. Despite the wilful actions of the criminally motivated few, the number of related domestic fires has declined dramatically over recent years.

The reduction in house fires is an excellent headline but what factors lie behind this trend? It seems that the profile of fire safety has been raised over recent years and the government has put increasing resources backed by legislation in both the commercial and domestic fire safety. The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 backed by increasingly rigorous enforcement and prosecution goes a long way in explaining improved fire safety standards in the workplace but what about the home situation?

The cultural landscape in the 1950’s and 1960’s was very different that today. Safety laws were more basic, fire risk awareness was lower and fire precautions in the home of a much lower standard. It seems that a gradual improvement in all of these areas lies behind the positive statistics published this year.

In the 1960’s the number of house fire deaths rose from around 400 to more than 700 by the end of the decade. The numbers continued to increase in the 1970’s despite government campaigns aimed for example on cigarette fires. People continued to practice poor fire safety and only a tiny proportion of people had smoke alarms.

Real improvements started to be made in the 1980’s when the government implemented more targeted and statistically based measures. Since 1983, apart from minor inconsistencies, the trend in domestic fires has been consistently down. Research showed that 35% of all fires in the early 1980’s were due to furniture containing polyurethane foam. As a direct result of this the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations became law in 1988. These regulations meant that upholstered furniture needed to be fire retardant and manufacturers responded accordingly. Research has shown that this change saved more than 700 lives over the following 10 years.

Early detection of fire was shown to be a major problem with 50% of people dying in before they knew there was a fire in the mid 1980’s. The success of a government pilot scheme lead to a huge increase in smoke alarm installation. A report in showed that between 1987 and 2006, the proportion of households with alarms increased from 9% to over 80%. Changes to the Building Regulations in 1992 has also had an impact and has meant that over 2 million new homes now have mains wired smoke alarms fitted.

The 1990’s saw a more fundamental review of the government’s approach to fire safety. A 1993 Audit Commission review looked at the Fire Brigades role and concluded that they should have a larger fire prevention remit and a legal responsibility and funding to back it up. A task force report estimated a direct saving of over £300 million of this fire prevention role being implemented. It also highlighted the need for well-targeted media campaigns aimed at influencing public attitudes and behaviour.

In 1999 the “Fire Kills” campaign was started and continues to this day. This national campaign further emphasised the benefits of smoke alarms, tackled smoking related fires under the banner “put it out, right out” and dealt directly with kitchen fire safety. Importantly, the campaign targeted high-risk groups such as people with disabilities, the elderly and infirm as well as single parent families and minority ethnic communities. The campaign worked closely with Fire and Rescue authorities and other key community partners to ensure maximum success.

The Bain report in 2002 again highlighted the Fire Services fire prevention role and was a springboard for legislative changes that finally gave a legal basis for these activities. A White Paper set out targets and roles that directly lead to the 2004 Fire and Rescue Services Act. Since then, all Fire Services have had to actively promote fire safety in their region. The Act talks of the provision of information on fire prevention and of giving advice on restricting fire spread and improving “the means of escape from buildings…in case of fire”. An initial funding stream of £25 million included money for the provision of free smoke alarms on a risked based approach. Home Fire Risk Checks have resulted in over 1.25 million alarms being provided by the Fire Service. Recent research has concluded that the financial benefits of the strategy have by far outweighed the costs.

What is clear is that no single action or approach to fire safety has led to the dramatic improvement in domestic fire statistics. A combination of government campaigns and support along with targeted activity by the Fire Service can only go so far. Ultimately, the attitudes and actions of householders influence the number of domestic fires. Recent high profile domestic and commercial fires continue to raise public awareness and a cultural shift towards higher safety standards and more participation in fire safety courses will all contribute to the positive trend continuing.

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