Tuesday, September 27, 2011

NFPA National Fire Statistics for 2010

The National Fire Protection Association or NFPA just released the statistics for fire loss in the United States during 2010.  Before I share those stats with you, let me introduce you to the NFPA and what they do.

Taken from their website: "The mission of the international nonprofit NFPA, established in 1896, is to reduce the worldwide burden of fire and other hazards on the quality of life by providing and advocating consensus on issues of codes and standards, research, training, and education.
The worlds leading advocate of fire prevention and an authoritative source on public safety,NFPA develops, publishes, and disseminates more than 300 consensus codes and standards intended to minimize the possibility and effects of fire and other risks. NFPA membership totals more than 70,000 individuals around the world."

The Hard Numbers

In 2010, fire departments in the United States responded to 1,331,500 fires, according to data received from fire departments that responded to the association's national fire survey.  Compiling the numbers, this indicates a slight decrease of 1.3% from 2009 and is the lowest number of fires since NFPA began using the survey in 1977. 

Structure Fires

An estimated 482,000 structure fires were reported in 2010, an increase of 0.3% or no change from the previous year.  From 1977 to 2010, the number of structure fires peaked in 1977 with 1,098,000 building fires being reported.  The number of structure fires then decreased steadily, particularly in the 80's for an overall reduction of 37%.  In fact from 1989 to 1998, structure fires had decreased overall 25% to 517,000.  Those numbers stayed within that framework until 2009 when the number dropped again to 480,000. 

Residential Structure Fires

384,000 residential fires were reported in 2010 or 80% of all structure fires for an increase of 1.9 percent from the year before. 279,000 of these fires occurred in one-and-two family homes accounting for 58% percent of all residential fires.  Another 90,500 fires occurred in apartments, or 19% of the total fires in residential dwellings.

Notable Changes

Nonresidential fires displayed some significant changes for 2010, including a drop of 17% of fires occurring in public assembly occupancies and an increase of 9% in commercial businesses such as stores and office buildings. 

Vehicle Fires

There were an estimated 184,500 highway vehicle fires in this reporting period for a decrease of 3%.  However, all other vehicle fires not occurring on a highway or roadway experienced an increase of 9%. 

Outside Fires

From 1977 to 2009, the number of outside fires peaked in 1977 when 1,658,500 fires were reported.  The numbers decreased during the next six years to 1,011,000 in 1983 or a reduction of 39%.  The numbers remained flat until 1988 when 1,214,000 fires had occurred.  In 1993 the number of outside fires hovered around 1 million and stayed that way for the next three years.  The number for 2010 stands at 634,000. 

Vegetation Fires

An estimated 304,000 brush fires occurred in wildland areas for no change from the year before.  There were also an estimated 173,000 trash fires or no change from 2009.

Civilian Fire Deaths

3,120 civilians lost there lives to fire in 2010. This is an increase of 4% from the year before.  A better understanding of why the increase, can be found by examining the property types involved in these grim statistics.

Deaths in Residential Fires

An estimated 2,665 souls perished in home fires during 2010.  Of these deaths, 440 occurred in apartment fires and another 2,200 died in one-and-two family structures for a total increase of 4.8%.  In all, fires in the home which includes single family, manufactured and apartments resulted in 2,640 deaths or 2.9% more than the year before.

Looking At the Trends

Several trends are worth noting in regards to residential fire deaths.  Home fire deaths peaked in 1978 with 6,015 fatalities but have gone on a steady decline reaching an all time low in the 2,500 to 3,000 range or a 55% decrease at the present time.  It is also noted that during the same period, 1977-present, home fires have also fell for a total of 49%.  However, when we look at the death rate per 1,000 homes, we see no steady decline. 

The Five Point Plan

With home fire deaths still at an unacceptable rate of 85% of all civilian deaths, fire safety and education will remain the top priority for NFPA going into 2012 and beyond. This goal will be carried out by a five point strategy to reduce serious injury and death in residential structures.

1. More widespread public fire safety education on preventing fires and avoiding serious death or injury.

2. More people must use and maintain smoke detectors and develop a plan of escape should fire occur.

3. We must aggressively petition for the mandate that all residential structures built in the future be protected by automatic sprinklers.

4. Stricter fire standards for upholstered furniture like mattresses that are more resistant to ignition from cigarettes.

5. Continue to address the special fire safety needs of the young and the elderly.

Civilian Fire Injuries

An estimated 17,720 civilians were injured in fires last year in 2010.  This represents an increase of 4% from the year before and is the highest number since 2005 when 17,925 were injured.

Injuries are Under reported

Many fire injuries are not reported to the fire department. Additionally, many injuries occur from small fires to which the fire departments do not respond and therefore are unaware of victims that they may have otherwise attended too. 

Property Loss

Fires caused $11.6 billion in property damage in 2010, a significant decrease of 7.5% from 2009.  Fires in structures resulted in $10 billion in property damage, again a noticeable decrease of 10.5% from the previous year.  The average loss per structure fire in 2010 was $20,000 per fire.  Adjusted for inflation, the average structure fire loss increased 436% from 1977 to present time.

Other property damage worth mentioning include $420 million in public assembly properties, a decrease of 9% from 2009 and $515 million in industrial real estate, also a decrease of 10% from the previous year. 

A word about property loss totals: amounts can change dramatically from year to year due to one or more large loss fires such as multiple warehouses or a huge wildland fire with structures destroyed or damaged from the fire.

NFPA estimates put incendiary fires at 27,500 in 2010, an increase of 3.8% from 2009.  These fires took the lives of an estimated 200 citizens, an increase of 18% from the previous year.

There were also an estimated 14,000 intentionally set vehicle fires in 2010 resulting in $90 million in property loss.


Every 24 seconds there is a reported fire in the United States.  A fire occurs inside a structure at the rate of one every 65 seconds and in homes every 82 seconds.  Nationwide, there was a fire death every 169 minutes last year and a fire injury every 30 minutes.  It is my goal at Phoenix Safety and Investigative Consultants in conjunction with the NFPA to reduce the tragedy that fire brings to many every day.  Most of these fires can be avoided with education and the use of modern day fire protection equipment.

If you are old enough to remember, the auto industry fought for years to keep air bags out of automobiles due to the cost.  And having responded to hundreds of vehicle accidents during my 31 year career in fire and law enforcement, I can tell you first hand that injuries and fatalities in automobile accidents today are only a fraction of what they used to be due to the installation of airbags. Because of politics and money, many lives were forever changed or ended unnecessarily because of greediness of the auto industry.  The same can be said of the building industry and the lobbyist for them that continue to stand in the way of fire codes that would have the same effect on fire fatalities and injuries as air bags did for the driving public. 

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Hero in a Different Kind of Uniform

Born on February 5, 1956 in San Francisco, Betty Ong was the youngest of four children to Harry Ong Senior and Yee-gum Ong.  She grew up in Chinatown where her parents owned and operated a small mom and pop store on Jackson Street near Mason in the City. 
Betty graduated from Washington High School and in 1987 she became a flight attendant with American Airlines.  Her choice of careers is not surprising since her friends and family described her as having "a knack for making people feel comfortable and putting them at ease."   Described as a tireless worker, whenever she worked a late night flight "she would never sit down and relax" relayed one of her co-workers. "She often would walk down the aisles, even when most of the passengers were asleep, and talk softly to those awake".  Another co-worker said it was nothing out of the ordinary for her to care of a passenger's baby while they rested.  For you parents out there that have ever traveled on a red eye with kids, flight attendants like these were always life savers.  Not surprising to learn, Betty always had a great love for children and the elderly.  Living in the suburbs of Boston, friends and neighbors told stories of her taking the half-hour drive into the city just to walk and have lunch with senior citizens of the community. 

On September 11th, 2001, Betty, now a 'Head Flight Attendant', assigned herself to American Airlines Flight 11 en route from Boston Logan International Airport to Los Angeles to meet up with her sister.  The both of them were off to a well deserved vacation in Hawaii, but of course we now know it wasn't to be because Betty never made it to Los Angeles or Hawaii.  Soon after take-off, Betty made an emergency phone call to airline reservations agents in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina reporting " The cockpit is not answering their phone and there's somebody stabbed in business class and we can't breath...somebody's got mace or something."  In a calm, cool, and collected manner Betty along with fellow flight attendant Madeline Sweeney relayed the seat numbers of the hijackers which ultimately lead to the identification of all the terrorists involved.  Additionally, it was her phone call that really saved countless lives in Washington by warning that America was under attack which eventually led to the passenger take-over of flight 93 that crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. 

During her 23-minute phone call, Betty remained calm and professional by not only taking care of the passengers and crew under the most of stressful conditions one could imagine, but also managed to relay critical information that most likely saved many lives.  The 9/11 commission declared Betty and the rest of her crew as heroes.  In true fashion, just before the end of her life Betty asked the ground crew to "Pray for Us and not just for herself".

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Red Star of Death

Hunkered down deep within the archives of the FDNY are hundreds of files marked with a blurry red inked star known by some veterans long since passed as the "Red Star of Death".  These files contain a special group of firemen, 699 in all, that responded to the once infamous 'New York Telephone Company' fire in the old Gas House District of East Manhattan.  I say once, because 699 pales in comparison to the 8,927 folders about to be stamped with same death star containing the men and women of the FDNY that were involved in firefighting operations and sadly body recovery at the murder site of the Twin Towers in lower Manhanttan.
Stuyvesant Square Today

On February 27th, 1975, New York City firemen responded to a report of a structure fire at the New York Telephone Company high-rise building on the corner of Second Ave. and 14th Street located in what is now known as Stuyvesant Square named after Peter Stuyvesant whose farm sat at this location in the Seventeenth century.  The first alarm companies, there were four other alarms to follow, responded just after midnight to a blaze that would continue to spew out toxic clouds of hydrochloric acid, benzene, and 4,000 other known cancer causing compounds that make up polyvinyl chloride or PVC.  Hours later after the fire was extinguished it was discovered that more than 100 tons of piled up PVC sheathing had burned throughout the night and most of the next morning in sealed vaults more than three stories underneath the huge telephone switching station.  At one point the fire became so intense that firemen standing on the street above were literally knocked off their feet after one of the vaults exploded from an accumulation of flammable hydrocarbon gas given off by the burning PVC.

Today, some 36 years later, the effects of this deadly blaze are still being felt among New York's bravest.  Dan Noonan, a firefighter on Ladder 3 at the time, was one of the first to arrive on scene "Virtually every firemen who responded to the phone fire's first two alarms has cancer" and Noonan has linked 40 confirmed cases so far to those first companies on scene, including his own case of leukemia.  But how in the world do you single out this one particular fire when firefighters are exposed thousands of times to toxic smoke and chemicals over the course of their careers?  The task is made even more difficult when you realize that exposure record keeping in 1975 was virtually non-existent.  Look at this case for instance, the only tracking system back in the mid-seventies even with the largest fire department in the country amounted to nothing more than a red telephone company stamp on a folder.

Chief Von Essen
The Chief Medical Officer of the FDNY in 2004, Dr. Kerry Kelly asked "How do you monitor people when they are retired, particularly when cancers caused by burning PVC can take up to 20 years on average to appear?"  By the mid-nineties, rumors of cancer clusters had begun to surface among the ranks that had fought the telephone company fire.  Thomas Von Essen, former Fire Commissioner of New York and the author of the best selling book "Brotherhood" ordered an immediate inquiry into the suspected high cancer rates.

So, in 1997, the Chief Medical Officer conducted a survey to determine the extent of the clusters.  Although much of the data in 1997 was not based on all 699 due to various reasons, the most important being that firefighters in those days tended to "suck it up" rather than report being sick or injured, however, 239 firefighters did feel sick enough after the fire to report it.  Of those 239, 18 were already dead, seven of them from confirmed cases of cancer some twenty-two years later.  The report also determined that the average age at the time of death or the cancer diagnoses was just 50 years old; Men like Joseph Pfundstein, 45, dead of leukemia, Thomas Pitarresi, 62, dead of colon cancer, or a man I personally met, Dan Noonan, who received the devastating news at just 52 years old that he had leukemia.  "There is no doubt in my mind that PVC in the Telephone Company fire caused a cancer cluster" said Deborah Wallace, an expert in environmental health who fears that the numbers are most likely to grow in the years to come.

Based on other hazardous materials incidents like the 1969 Everglades fertilizer plant fire in Florida and what firefighters already knew by seeing their brothers die of various malaises over the years, this came as no surprise.  A new study published in the "Lancet", a British medical journal, indicates that those who worked at "ground zero" during emergency operations and clean-up are much more likely to have cancer than those who didn't.  The current Chief Medical Officer for the FDNY, Dr. David Prezant, indicated that "the findings point to a higher rate of cancer among those studied from the 911 site; however, the results are far from conclusive.  This is not an epidemic".  Well, if the New York Telephone Company fire is any indication, then Prezent and others in Washington, D.C. better start defining the parameters for a pandemic rather than an epidemic crisis, because unless they change the way current legislation has been written, thousands of brave men and women are going to be left to fend for themselves.

The first review after the 911 attacks has just recently been released by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health which has yet to confirm a link between exposure at ground zero and cancer.  However, the numbers are beginning to come in and they are alarming.  Of the 8,927 that were classified as being exposed, 263 have cancer which is 19% higher than that of the group of 10,000 firefighters studied that were not exposed.  In fact, the study has already seen an increase in certain kinds of cancer like non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, thyroid and prostate cancer.  But as we found in the telephone company fire, many of these men and women whom we know were exposed to cancer causing substances like jet fuel and asbestos may not be diagnosed for 20 or more years after the initial exposure. 
So, where does this leave our first responders and civilians that responded to the World Trade Center on 911 to assist in the rescue and recovery?  Cancer is not an illness that is covered by the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act that provides for treatment, compensation, and continuous health monitoring of those exposed at ground zero.  This is particularly true for the multitudes of construction workers, ambulance personnel, and volunteers that worked hours upon hours at the 911 site.  Firefighters and police officers are somewhat better off because of a cancer presumptive law passed in the early 1990's which gives them certain pension benefits.  However, in many states including New York, if the cancer is not diagnosed until after retirement, the firefighter receives nothing in medical treatment or compensation beyond what he is entitled to otherwise.  It is clear to me that the 9/11 Compensation Act needs to be reviewed for the benefit of the brave men and women that responded at a time when they were needed most.  Stand behind them by writing or calling your congress person and ask that the James Zadroga 9/11 Act be amended to include cancer victims.  Please don't stand-by and let our first responders and good citizens become another forgotten "Red Star".