Examining Non-Residential Fire Stats

Sept. 9, 2014
A closer look at NFPA’s National Fire Survey can reveal strategies for detection and prevention

Are deaths from fires in commercial structures declining? Has property loss due to accidental fires been decreasing? The stats say yes.

The U.S. Fire Administration/FEMA defines non-residential (i.e. commercial) structures as enclosed, non-residential buildings, including: assembly, eating and drinking establishments; educational facilities; stores; offices; basic industry; manufacturing; storage; detached garages; outside properties; and other non-permanent residential buildings. The term non-residential also includes institutional properties such as prisons, nursing homes, juvenile care facilities and hospitals, though many people may reside there for short (or long) durations of time.

Every year, the NFPA´s Fire Analysis and Research division provides reports and statistics on the loss of life and property from fires. The estimates are based on data reported to the NFPA by fire departments that responded to the 2012 National Fire Experience Survey. While reporting can be spotty and often incomplete, FEMA estimated the number of civilian deaths related to fires in non-residential buildings as approximately 80 persons in 2011; and NFPA determined that number to be 65 in 2012. 

Did you think this number would be higher? Or lower? Of course, a single loss of life is tragic. Averaging more than one death per week is tragic. For those that thought the number would have been much higher, let me say that we cannot let this cause us to become complacent with the codes and standards that have allowed us to regularly see this number stay this low. Application and enforcement of standardized codes are a key reason for this impressive low death rate, to be sure.

Causes of Fires

These latest statistics show that the number-one source of non-residential fires, by far, is “cooking” and “open flame” related. My takeaway is that these fires occur when people are (or should be) awake and nearby. Installation of manual pull boxes and the sounding of alarm notification appliances upon activation of any suppression system are imperative to reducing these numbers.

Of course, if your state building/fire code has allowed manual pull boxes to be eliminated in sprinklered buildings, then notifying the fire department, along with fellow occupants, when the fire is smaller may not be possible. Just because the codes allow protection to be eliminated or traded for another technology (in this case, “early detection” for “later suppression”) does not always mean it is a good idea. Most customers will add protection if offered. End of sermon.

The next single listed cause for non-residential fires is “intentional.” Have you considered the role your security alarm system plays in the prevention of arson? “Educational occupancies” and “stores and office buildings” tie for locations with the highest number of intentional fires. Having a comprehensive automatic detection system for both fire and intrusion, in both these occupancy types, can make a big difference here.

Another interesting statistic in the “intentional” category can be found if you combine the number of “heating,” “heat,” “appliances,” and “equipment malfunction” sources of fires. Combining these four categories will outnumber the “intentional” category two to one (yet are still less than half the “cooking” category). Again, where can we put our efforts to improve? Adding automatic devices near the kitchen, as well as other major appliances and heating equipment, should allow you to increase the odds of early detection, statistically speaking.

Fire Deaths

The U.S. Fire Administration also reports the relative risks of dying in a fire in this country, and breaks those stats down by state as well. If you live in the District of Columbia and West Virginia, your chance of dying in a fire is more than triple the national average. Those in Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee, face more than double the risk of dying in a fire than the national average. In states like Arizona, Massachusetts, California, Wisconsin, Florida, Connecticut, Oregon, Colorado and New York, the risk is well below the national average. North Dakota, Maine and several other states reported such low fire-related deaths that they could not be evaluated statistically.

What are the common denominators in determining higher risks for fire related deaths? Why is the risk of death from a fire in Illinois 50 percent lower than for those living in Indiana? Why are some of the least populated states listed in the same group as states with the highest populations?

The District of Columbia has the highest fire-related death rate and a high population density. West Virginia, with a far less dense population, is the second-highest risk state in the nation; yet, both of these highest at-risk populations are separated by The Commonwealth of Virginia, with a below-average risk of fire-related deaths. Why is Florida’s fire related death risk statistically the same as New Jersey?

I’m sure a professional statistician could get a better indication of the fire death rates and causes when economic, education, cultural, health and age is factored into the equation, however, that data would prove irrelevant as those are features we cannot change for our customers. Suggesting to our Alabama alarm customers that they are five times better off moving to Massachusetts is not a viable sales model.

Fires by Occupancy Type

Assembly, eating and drinking establishments have a high risk of fire, yet along with educational occupancies, account for the lowest fatalities. Can the same be said for storage facilities? Since 2013, the death rate for storage buildings has been the highest of all occupancy types.

Would it surprise you to learn that there are no building/fire code requirements for fire alarm systems for these occupancies? Basically, the number of fires in all non-residential occupancies has declined by approximately 1 percent; and the number of fire deaths and injuries has declined by more than 5 percent from the previous year.

Not discussed here were the “who” or “when” of non-residential fires; and, at best, this article simply provides a basic presentation of raw data. When you have time, peruse this data further, including information from other research papers and articles by those who analyze this issue from many different perspectives. You may glean new insight for markets you might decide to begin pursuing.

Note: Read NFPA’s full analysis of the 2012 National Fire Experience Survey at http://bit.ly/NFPA2012analysis.

Greg Kessinger is SD&I’s fire alarm and codes expert and a regular contributor. Email him your fire & life safety questions at[email protected].