Grill The Fire Expert: Fire Deaths in the United States

Oct. 27, 2008
The Good News Continues for Commercial Buildings

Q: Someone told me I have a better chance of getting killed by lightning than I do of dying in a fire in a commercial building. What are the actual fire statistics for the United States?

A: Nationwide, on average there are 12 fire related deaths per million people. However, fire deaths are not spread equally around the country. The North Central U.S. had the highest death rate of 15.5 per million people, whereas the Western U.S. had the fewest number of deaths with 6.8 per million.

Fires seem to favor smaller communities by about 2:1 over the big cities. The two smallest community groups (under 2,500 and 2,500-5,000 populations) had the highest fire death rates with 25.1 and 21.1 deaths per million people, respectively.

As for your question, the NFPA’s report, “Fire Loss in the United States During 2005” ( shows that commercial fire deaths have never been lower. For non- residential deaths, there were a total of 50 people, representing 1.4% of all civilian deaths from fire. (More than 75 million people have been added to the population, making the overall reductions even more dramatic.) Since 1978, this represents a decline of almost 50%.
I don’t wish to minimize the loss of 50 lives in commercial fires nor am I sure about the number of deaths from lightning but consider that in 2003 (the last year statistics of this type were available) deaths were attributed to: 95 people by bee stings, 600 accidentally fell out of a building, another 701 fell from one level to another, 597 from slipping, tripping, and stumbling, on the same level, 838 from a fall involving a bed, chair, other furniture, 78 from being bitten or struck by a mammal other than a dog (32), and 60 legally executed. The NFPA report states that 500 civilians died in highway vehicle fires.

While excellent progress is being made keeping commercial building occupants safe, the biggest problem remains in residential occupancies, most notably, one and two-family dwellings. A residential fire occurs every 80 seconds. In 2005 there were a total of 2,570 deaths in this category, which accounted for 69.9% of all civilian deaths from fire. Add to this another 460 from apartments, for an additional 12.5% of all civilian deaths from fire. Together, home fires caused 3,030, or 82%, of our civilian fire deaths. Although this represents a 5% decrease in residential deaths from the previous year, and a 49.6% decrease since 1978, it is still 60 times greater than the death rate of non-residential buildings.

NFPA 72 states that interconnected smoke alarms with non-supervised wiring are considered to be only 85% reliable, but a monitored residential fire alarm system with system smoke detectors is considered to be 95% reliable. (The Fire Alarm Code also points out that even non-monitored fire alarm systems are considered to be 90% reliable.) This added reliability could make a difference in the thousands of lives you serve. As a fire alarm professional, make it your new year’s resolution to offer additional fire protection for every security system you sell. By doing so you know you are contributing to life safety in a significant way.