Study Authors Recommend Age-Based Home Fire Risk Assessments

David Butry, chief of the Applied Economics Office, said previous studies "couldn't say whether the elderly disproportionally fall victim to fires because they live in places with higher-than-average fire ignition threats or because they are unable to respond quickly to a fire and get to safety."

A new study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Engineering Laboratory shows scientifically for the first time that a person's ability to respond quickly to a residential fire determines who dies and who is injured. Home fire deaths, the NIST researchers concluded, are more likely among those they define as frail populations—people who aren't in robust health and primarily age 65 and older—while nonfatal injuries occur more often in adults ages 20 to 49.

The findings suggest vulnerability to fires in homes could be mapped for communities across the country based on age demographics, and tha measures designed to prevent fire deaths and injuries could be targeted to the appropriate populations to maximize their effectiveness.

The study was conducted by the Applied Economics Office in the laboratory; it strongly suggests communities should evaluate and address home fire risks for occupants based on age. "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," said NIST economist Stanley Gilbert, one of the authors on the paper that appears in the journal Injury Prevention. "Therefore, measures to overcome this population-specific vulnerability, such as automatic sprinklers in bedrooms, may help reduce the number of fatalities."

Previous research sought to link fire deaths and injuries in homes to the overall fire risk rather than the role of occupant vulnerability once a fire was under way, said David Butry, chief of the Applied Economics Office. "Those studies couldn't say whether the elderly disproportionally fall victim to fires because they live in places with higher-than-average fire ignition threats or because they are unable to respond quickly to a fire and get to safety," he explained.

Butry and Gilbert used U.S. Census data to define the populations of interest; data from the National Fire Incident Reporting System; and CDC statistics on deaths from natural causes for comparison with fire-related fatalities. They focused on the five-year period from 2009 to 2013.

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