Home and Community Safety & Health

Elderly and frail people most vulnerable in fatal home fires: NIST study

fire safety older adult
Photo: U.S. Fire Administration

Gaithersburg, MD – Elderly and frail people are the population most likely to die in home fires, while adults between the ages of 20 and 49 are the group most likely to be injured, according to a recent study conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Using data from 2009 to 2013 from the National Fire Incident Reporting System, statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Fire Protection Association’s definition for homes – which excludes hotels, nursing homes and other assisted-living facilities – researchers assessed injury, death and fire rates by age group.

They found that an average of 2,740 deaths and 13,300 injuries from home fires occurred each year. Those numbers made up 84 and 77 percent, respectively, of all fire-related deaths and injuries.

People considered frail – defined in the study as anyone not in robust health and 65 and older – accounted for 32 percent of all home fire-related deaths. People ages 20 to 49 comprised 25 percent of home fire-related deaths.

In contrast, people ages 20 to 49 experienced 50 percent of the nonfatal injuries from home fires, compared with 13 percent for people 65 and older.

The researchers suggest the disparity could guide communities and authorities to approach home fire safety using demographics.

“Our findings indicate that frailty, especially in elderly populations, hinders the ability to escape and should be recognized as a key factor in home fire deaths,” Stanley Gilbert, study co-author, said in an Aug. 22 press release. “Therefore, measures to overcome this population-specific vulnerability, such as automatic sprinklers in bedrooms, may help reduce the number of fatalities.”

The study was published in the August edition of Injury Prevention.

NIST stated that it also plans to implement the study’s findings in the Fire-Community Assessment/Response Evaluation System (FireCARES), an online tool launched by NIST and eight partners that provides a decade of research on structure fires and related casualties to fire departments, according to the release. Available information also includes building plans, locations of residential and mobile homes, public health and census data, and figures on vulnerable populations.

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