Download PDF version

In the past two years, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has issued several new reports that lend more in-depth insight into the top causes of residential fires. This post summarizes the top causes of home fires and some of the interesting trends identified in these reports.

Drop in number of residential fires

The number of residential fires and fire deaths has dropped by about half over the past 40 years. However, the data also shows that while there were fewer fires and fire deaths during this time, the number of people that die per 1,000 residential fires each year has remained relatively consistent, at between 7-10 deaths.

The same data shows that while the number of people that die each year in residential fires dropped by 41 percent since 1980, the number of people that die in one- or two-family homes has increased by more than 20 percent.

Need for fire sprinkler systems in small homes

Apartment buildings are far more likely to have sprinkler systems than one- and two-family homes

This is not surprising, when one considers that apartment buildings are far more likely to have sprinkler systems than one- and two-family homes, as well as monitored smoke detection systems that automatically notify the local fire department when the alarm is activated.

Furthermore, these types of systems are typically required by local fire codes to be regularly inspected and maintained, unlike the smoke detectors and small fire extinguishers that are usually found in a one-or two-family home.

Primary causes of home and residential fires

According to the NFPA report, the top four causes of home fires and their resulting casualties are cooking accidents, heating, electrical distribution and lighting equipment (installed wiring, outlets, switches, cords, plugs, power supplies, and lighting), and careless smoking.

  • Cooking - The most current data from the NFPA show that cooking accounts for about half of all home fires reported every year. Almost half of these fires cause injury and they are the second leading cause of death in home fires. Since the 1980s, the number of deaths and injuries has fluctuated with no significant overall trend up or down.

Minor/small home fires

Most home cooking fires are small fires that did not spread beyond the pan, oven, or other container in which they started. While these are considered minor fires, more than half of the non-fatal injuries were caused when people tried to control the fire themselves.

Not surprisingly, range and cooktops were involved in most of these fires (62 percent). Interestingly, electric ranges and cooktops were found to have a higher risk of cooking fires than gas ranges, which cook with an open flame. Less than one percent of fires in the kitchen were caused by clothing catching fire, but in cases where that happened, it was often deadly (14 percent).

Unattended cooking, a major cause of home fires

The primary cause of cooking fires in homes was unattended cooking

The primary cause of cooking fires in homes was unattended cooking. Often, these fires are caused when combustible materials, such as empty food packaging and cloth items come into contact with a hot stove. However, most were caused by cooking with fats and oils, which require continuous attention. Some cooking fires occurred when cooks left food unattended on the stove to simmer or left food baking or roasting in the oven.

Cooking oil, grease, and other fats were the top cause of fires that started with the ignition of cooking ingredients. This fact underscores the need for more consumer education about how to deal with these fires effectively. If they are still confined to the pan, the flames can be smothered by sliding a lid over the pan and turning off the burner. The NFPA provides educational material for the public to help improve awareness of cooking fires and how to prevent them, including a cooking safety tip sheet.

  • Heating Equipment - According to data from the National Fire Protection Association, home heating equipment was responsible for 15 percent of all home fires reported each year and was the second leading cause of fire in homes.

Woodstoves, fireplaces and chimney fires

Space heaters and wood stoves account for almost all of the fire-related injuries and deaths that occurred as a result of home heating fires. Fireplaces or chimneys also caused their share of home heating fires. However, the number of fires occurring from the use of wood fireplaces has been steadily decreasing, likely as a result of the growing popularity in gas fireplaces.

Overall, there is a distinct downward trend in home fires resulting from heating equipment, which the NFPA attributes to improvements in safety standards. For example, many electric and kerosene space heaters heating are now required to have automatic cut-off devices that turn them off when they are tipped over. They also now have more covering around heating coils.

Space heaters, a top source of homes fires

Space heaters continue to be the top source of home fires caused by heating equipment

Despite this, space heaters continue to be the top source of home fires caused by heating equipment. More than half of fires attributable to space heaters and the majority of the deaths they have caused occurred as a result of their proximity to combustible materials, such as clothes or furniture.

Furthermore, electrical or mechanical failures and malfunctions and forgetting to turn space heaters off were also leading factors in these fires. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission provides good information on how to reduce the fire hazards associated with portable heaters and the NFPA provides tips on home heating safety.

  • Electrical fires - Electrical fires are another leading cause of home fires. To better understand if these types of fires can be prevented through code changes, equipment changes and/or public education, the NFPA grouped the home fires in its most recent report into:
  1. Electrical failure or malfunction – These are fires in which an electrical failure or malfunction is a contributing factor to ignition. Such fires include any equipment powered by electricity such as cooking, heating, electronics, washers and dryers.
  2. Home wiring and lighting equipment – Fires in this category accounted for 50 percent of all electrical fires. These fires are also caused by electrical failure or malfunction, but may also be caused by overloaded equipment and combustible items close to heating equipment. In the case of home wiring and lighting, code changes might help to prevent such fires. At the same time, public education might be more effective in preventing fires caused by overloading plug strips or inattention to the risks associated with the use of heating appliances.

The trend in home fires caused by electrical failure or malfunction has been steadily decreasing for the past 30 years. The number of fires in recent years is 40-45 percent lower than its peak in 1980. Unfortunately, however, the number of deaths resulting from these kinds of fires has not shown the same downward trend.

Careless Smoking

While the number of adult smokers in the U.S. has declined by more than 50 percent since 1980, smoking was still the leading cause of home fire deaths, in the period from 2012 to 2016. This is the time summarized in National Fire Protection Association’s 2019 report, ‘Home Fires Started by Smoking’, which shows that careless smoking still makes up almost a quarter of all home fire deaths.

Despite this, the long term trends are encouraging. From the period between 1980 to 2016, the number of home fires caused by careless smoking steadily decreased by 77 percent to a new low of 16,500 fires in 2016. The number of deaths each year fluctuated over that time but still shows an overall decline.

Increased use of smoke alarms and ‘fire safer’ cigarettes

The NFPA report attributes these trends to a combination of an increasing use of smoke alarms over the years and the decrease in the number of smokers over that same period. Another contributing factor could be the introduction of ‘fire safer’ cigarettes into the market.

According to the Public Health Law Center, most states now require cigarette manufacturers to meet ignition propensity standards. These standards help to ensure cigarettes are designed to have a low probability of igniting and to self-extinguish when left unattended.

Home Fire Prevention and Safety

The best means for preventing injury and death are smoke detectors and fire extinguishers

While the causes of home fires vary, the best means for preventing injury and death are smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. The NFPA recommends at a minimum that smoke alarms be installed both on the inside and outside every bedroom in the home and on every level of the home (including basements).

However, standards have evolved over the years, and many older homes may not have enough smoke alarms necessary to meet current fire protection standards. Homeowners in older homes should verify that they have the right number of smoke alarms properly placed throughout their homes and install additional units where necessary to protect themselves and their families.

It is also advisable to have a smoke alarm in the kitchen. While nuisance alarms can be a problem in this area, the NFPA 72 National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code provide vital information on how to place alarms to prevent this. The National Fire Protection Association also provides information on the installation and maintenance of residential smoke alarms on its website here.

Fire extinguishers, critical component of fire safety

Fire extinguishers are another critical component of fire safety and are intended to put out small fires. While kitchen fire extinguishers are considered by the NFPA to be supplementary, they provide an important layer of fire protection given the fact the kitchen is the likeliest place for a fire to occur. Any fire extinguisher used in a kitchen should be rated a Class B to ensure it will be effective for grease fires.

While most fires occur in the kitchen, most home fire deaths occur in areas other than the kitchen. This is why the NFPA considers B-C fire extinguishers, the type used for ordinary combustibles such as wood, paper, upholstery and other fabrics as ‘must-haves’.

For many homeowners, multipurpose A-B-C fire extinguishers are a good option as they can be used anywhere in the home. For living areas, garages, and workshops, the NFPA recommends fire extinguishers should be placed no more than 40 feet apart to ensure easy access.

Share with LinkedIn Share with Twitter Share with Facebook Share with Facebook
Download PDF version Download PDF version

In case you missed it

Securing The Next Generation Of 911
Securing The Next Generation Of 911

While conducting research for my 2021 Wisconsin Public Safety Commission (WIPSCOM) conference presentation, it became immediately clear that securing the nation’s public safety answering points (PSAPs) is no longer just an IT challenge. Shifting from an analog to digital operating environment — the next generation of 911 — will require strategic investments into three key areas: people, processes and technology. As call center technology evolves nationwide, the need for greater cybersecurity in the public safety space has never been more important. Internet connected systems Traditionally, PSAPs received calls over analog telephone networks consisting of copper wire transmission lines and dated cellular networks spanning a smaller area in close proximity to call centers. With the introduction of next generation 911 and the accompanying digital telephone networking services, the exposure of call center networks to would-be attackers has exponentially increased, allowing potential access from anywhere due to internet connected systems. A good analogy is thinking of the points of entry into your home. The legacy method allowed two entries into the house — the front and back door. With the introduction of digital networks, there are now more doorways into the home or call center, signifying a greater need for security and employee awareness of threats. Many of these recent attacks target people using a technique called social engineering First responder organizations Since 2019, there have been approximately 300 cyberattacks impacting local government agencies, including police stations, emergency dispatch call centers and first responder organizations. 125 of these attacks specifically focused on public safety agencies such as firefighting or EMT stations, with attacks reported in all 50 states. More recent examples show that cyberattacks focusing on our first responders are increasing at an alarming rate. Many of these recent attacks target people using a technique called social engineering. This is when attackers attempt to trick victims through telephone calls and/or emails to assist the attacker in introducing viruses to the network, provide sensitive data or share usernames and passwords to achieve their criminal motives. Cyber criminals' primary objective is to use social engineering techniques to achieve a much more serious attack: ransomware. Critical computer systems Ransomware is a type of malicious software (malware) that prevents access to sensitive files Ransomware is a type of malicious software (malware) that prevents access to sensitive files, data and critical computer systems using encryption that only the attacker can unlock. Victims must pay a random sum of money, usually in an untraceable cryptocurrency, to the attacker who promises to decrypt data once they receive the funds. A look at attacker motivations can help us all understand — and mitigate — the threat to our first responders. Here are three primary reasons why cybercriminals target public safety answering points: Monetary gain: Infecting a PSAP with ransomware can lead to significant payouts in order to restore first response services. Disruption of services: Shutting down critical services can put threat actors in the public eye while also playing a major role in multi-stage attacks. Cheap thrills: Attackers and, at times, even misguided amateurs can target critical services for notoriety or social standing. Mitigating cyber risk The human element, actions or inactions played a direct role in 85% of data breaches Regardless of the motivation, the outcome is generally the same: a disruption of first response services that are critical to protecting our communities and families. According to Verizon's 2021 Data Breach Investigations Report, the human element -- or people’s decisions, actions or inactions -- played a direct role in 85% of data breaches. As cyber threats targeting PSAPs and first responder teams continue to grow in number and severity, addressing the threat through employee awareness and education is a good first step in mitigating cyber risk. Here are four steps any PSAP can take now to assess and mitigate cyber threats targeting their organization. Security awareness training Educate employees with security awareness training - Ongoing security training efforts should occur at a general level for all PSAP employees, followed by more targeted, role-based security training for key roles and departments such as call center managers, dispatchers or those with access to sensitive data. General security awareness training efforts should focus on broad but relevant security topics employees are likely to encounter, such as how to identify a phishing email. Security training programs should occur at least annually, and training content reviewed semi-annually Role-based security training efforts should go one step further and include topics like how management should respond to ransomware payment demands or how to verify the identity of external callers asking for sensitive information or urgent payments. Security training programs should occur at least annually, and training content reviewed semi-annually to ensure completeness, accuracy and relevance of training content related to your operating environment. Physical building access Verify and strengthen employee access controls - This includes physical building access and logical access to any information or computer systems your organization operates. Most organizations have several internal or external users such as vendors, cleaning companies and other organizations who come into contact with the offices or other physical locations, increasing the risk of theft or unauthorized access via impersonation or tailgating attacks. Ensure exterior locations are sufficiently secured via electronic badge access or a minimum of key access with code entry. First responders and public service agencies should train employees to visibly display employee badges and report infringements to management in the event an attacker infiltrates the building. Multi-Factor authentication External visitors should be required to announce their arrival in advance to the organization External visitors should be required to announce their arrival in advance to the organization, enter through designated areas, check-in with a receptionist or direct contact, log their entry, show identification and wear a clearly identifiable visitor badge. Access to computer systems that contain sensitive data such as employee records or connections to other state and federal agencies should be secured via multi-factor authentication. Multifactor authentication is a security term referring to authenticating a computer system using several factors, including something you know (e.g., username or password) , something you have (e.g., smartphone) or something you are (e.g., fingerprints or voice pattern). Using two or more factors when accessing a computer system is crucial to keeping the cybercriminals out! Federal threat intelligence Leverage free resources to mature your cybersecurity posture - First responders and public service organizations have many free cybersecurity resources at their disposal. This includes federal threat intelligence via security advisories, which outline vulnerable software or hardware products they use, and direct consultation services from cyber response teams local to the area, which are taxpayer funded. The US-CISA also provides regional consultation services to assist all local government agencies Every first responder and public service organization should consider becoming a member of a relevant Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ISAC) such as the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center (MS-ISAC), as they provide free threat intelligence services and consultation resources to help boost cybersecurity. The US-Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (US-CISA) also provides regional consultation services to assist all local government agencies in maturing their cybersecurity posture. Public service organizations Hire external security firms to identify and correct weaknesses - To the extent allowed by budgets and personnel, first responders and public service organizations should hire external security or audit firms to assess the state of their cybersecurity practices and posture. These firms specialize in security best practices and assess security controls' adequacy across a wide array of organizations. It is often useful to bring these firms in for a fresh perspective on how the organization operates and its vulnerabilities. These engagements are typically performed annually and focus on core computer systems and business processes that involve sensitive data.

Using State-Of-The-Art Technology To Prevent And Put Out Wind Turbine Fires
Using State-Of-The-Art Technology To Prevent And Put Out Wind Turbine Fires

As more and more countries in Europe and North America commit to net zero, a key strategy is replacing old fossil fuel-driven forms of power generation and replacing them with renewable energy, such as wind turbines and solar panels. The wind industry has seen a particular boom, with tens of thousands of new turbines installed every year across the globe. However, like any other heavy machinery, wind turbines can catch fire due to mechanical or electrical failures. These fires can have impacts beyond the turbine if there is secondary fire spread to surrounding lands, resulting in potentially catastrophic loss. Without this technology in place, a single fire could cost $7-8 million and cause substantial downtime. The time is now for the industry to use all available technology to prevent these incidents and reduce the risk of fires spilling into the environment. How do wind turbine fires start? Wind turbine fires can catch fire due to external causes, such as lightning strikes, or internal causes, such as mechanical or electrical failure resulting in sparks or heat in the nacelle. Most nacelle fires start at one of three points of ignition – converter and capacitor cabinets, the nacelle brake, or the transformer. Nacelle brakes are used to stop the turbine’s blades from spinning in an emergency.  Converter and capacitor cabinets and transformers are necessary for the turbine to generate power and transform it into a voltage that can be exported to the grid. An electrical fault at either location can produce arc flashes or sparks, which can ignite nearby Class A combustibles, like cables, plastics, or fiberglass. Nacelle brakes are used to stop the turbine’s blades from spinning in an emergency. The brakes can cause turbine fires, albeit due to sparks from mechanical stress and friction rather than electrical failure. While some turbines have been designed with safer, electrical brakes, mechanical brake systems are often used as a backup in the event of power or control failure. These ignition points are all necessary for the safe generation of electricity from the wind, and cannot simply be designed out. As such, wind farm owners and operators must be ready to deal with fires when they spark. Why are wind turbine fires hard to fight? Modern wind turbines often exceed 250 feet in height, while most ground-based firefighting can only reach up to 100 feet. A team sent up-tower to manually fight the fire would constitute a major health and safety risk, as turbines have limited space and escape routes – putting employees not only in direct contact with fire but at risk of being in the turbine if it collapses. As such, when turbines catch fire, they are often left to burn out, with firefighters’ efforts focused on preventing the spread and clearing the area as fiery debris falls. This results in irreparable damage to the turbine, necessitating its replacement. What is the cost of a wind turbine fire? The cost of replacing a burned-out wind turbine depends on a number of factors. First and foremost is the size and initial cost of the turbine. Turbines with more than 3MW of rated capacity can cost between $3-10 million to install during development. Replacement turbines can often cost even more, as manufacturers are likely to charge more for individual, one-off installations. Another key loss is business interruption, or how long the turbine was offline – and therefore not generating revenue. The average loss due to a turbine fire was estimated by insurance company GCube to be $4.5 million in 2015. As turbines have grown larger and therefore more expensive to replace with greater losses in revenue, we expect a fire to cost anywhere between $7-8 million for new models. How can turbine owners and manufacturers manage fire risk? Firetrace’s system is designed with flexible Heat Detection Tubing, which ruptures in response to extreme heat or open flame Turbine manufacturers are already taking steps to “design out” fire risk in turbines. For example, lightning protection systems on turbine blades safely re-direct the surge of electricity away from cables, while condition monitoring systems can identify whether a component is overheating and likely to catch fire. In order to put out any turbine fires that do start at their source, turbine owners and manufacturers can install automatic fire suppression systems at common points of ignition. Firetrace’s system is designed with flexible Heat Detection Tubing, which ruptures in response to extreme heat or open flame, releasing a clean suppression agent precisely at the source of the fire before it can spread. Wind farm owners who have taken a more proactive approach to manage risk via fire suppression systems have been able to snuff out fires before they can spread throughout the turbine or into the environment. By investing in the latest technology for fire suppression, owners and operators have avoided the worst-case scenario, saving millions in operating costs.

PAMS Software Promotes Accountability Of Fire Service Responders
PAMS Software Promotes Accountability Of Fire Service Responders

The fire service has always struggled with maintaining accurate accountability of personnel who are responding or operating in emergencies. Lack of firefighter accountability is often cited as a contributing factor in Line of Duty Deaths (LODD). Compounding the accountability challenge are volunteer responders who can be coming from anywhere, with some going to the station and others going direct. The existing accountability tools and processes were unreliable and failed when needed the most. Need for reliable and accurate system As a firefighter and Incident Commander, Justin Brundage witnessed firsthand the data gaps of the tools and processes commonly used. A reliable and accurate system was needed in the fire service to avoid unnecessary risk to responses and responders. The intuitive process fits within an existing response workflow and provides an end-to-end solution  Seeking to address the problem, Brundage co-founded Incident Management Technology, whose Personnel Accountability Management System (PAMS) software is a solution for maintaining accurate and reliable firefighter accountability. The intuitive process fits within an existing response workflow and provides an end-to-end solution for firefighter accountability. The software was developed to solve operational gaps in emergency response and to help departments operate more effectively and safely. Real-time operations With the PAMS system, all personnel can see the available, deployed, and responding staff and resources in real-time on a mobile app or web browser. Responding apparatus are also viewable in real-time, including all the personnel on the apparatus. At an incident, the software tools simplify the accurate tracking and management of all personnel on the scene and enable a shared common picture of the who, what, and where of all responders at all times. PAMS gives department members and officers the information they need in real-time to optimize their responses. “We do this by sharing availability and response information throughout the department on a smartphone app,” says Brundage. Operational safety In addition to the improvement in operational safety that agencies get from PAMS, the software also improves response. “When all responders can see the other responders’ destinations and estimated times of arrival (ETAs) they can adapt and optimize the response efficiency by responding where they are needed most and not duplicating unnecessarily,” says Brundage.  PAMS software functions as an electronic equivalent to tag-based systems, which are ineffective, cumbersome, and error-prone. The key difference is that, by being electronic, the “accountability” information is viewable to anyone connected to the agency in real-time, regardless of location. Computer-aided dispatch (CAD) The software manages the responder throughout the lifecycle of the emergency response New incidents are sent to the responder mobile app automatically from computer-aided dispatch (CAD). Responders mark up if they are responding, and the system calculates and shares each responder's destination and ETA. The software manages the responder throughout the lifecycle of the emergency response. The entire department can see who is responding, who is assigned to each responding apparatus, who is operating at the incident, and where they are operating. Because this is an electronic process managing the personnel, is much easier with timers on task activities, and a simple and quick participatory action research (PAR) process. Fits in emergency workflow PAMS software is designed to fit into the existing workflow of an emergency response. “As responders ourselves we understand the burden of adding more operational requirements to the already chaotic moments of response and incident mitigation,” says Brundage. PAMS was built to work effectively on the equipment that is in many cases already deployed and installed in the response apparatus. The mobile app is available for iOS and Android and is used by the personnel responders, and then the web app is browser-based and can run on a browser window on tablets, mobile computing devices (MDCs), and laptops. Affordable, But has a lack of awareness In rolling out the product, awareness has proven to be a challenge for Incident Management Technology. “As a startup company most agencies that would benefit from the system aren’t aware that a solution like this even exists,” says Brundage. The system is expanding features and functionality to maximize incident response effectiveness The system is expanding features, functionality, and integrations rapidly intending to build an affordable solution for all fire departments to minimize their operational risks and to maximize their incident response effectiveness. Benefits of the software “We are currently having success with organic growth and the network effect,” says Brundage. “Our current customers are showing the system and validating the benefits to other agencies local to them, and we are increasing our awareness that way every day.” He adds, “We love doing web demos and talking to fire and EMS departments. Most fire departments have the same operational challenges, and the feedback we receive from customers and prospects is what we use to drive our next phase of software development.”