Charleston’s Uncommon Tragedy: Fires do less damage today than ever before

Nine firefighters perished as a terrible inferno swept through <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Charleston’s Sofa Super Store this past Monday evening. Their families, the city of Charleston, and, indeed, the whole nation, have every reason to mourn. Their bravery deserves recognition, and the particular nature of the tragedy deserves careful study. Overall, however, the event is a highly atypical—occurrence in the United States’ enormously successful campaign against fire. Things like this simply do not happen every day. In fact, the death of nine trained professional firefighters in a fire represents a higher toll than the United States would expect during the entire second quarter of the year. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation reports that only 100 firefighters died on duty in 2005, the last complete year for which data is available. Of these, only eight worked for fire departments in sizeable cities, and fewer than 40 made firefighting a full-time career. (Over two-thirds of firefighters are volunteers). And many died from causes other than fires. Over a third of deaths involved illness—mostly heart attacks—while on duty, two died in a crash of a firefighting plane during a training exercise, and several others died in vehicle accidents. It appears that only one discrete fire event—a townhouse fire in Evanston, Wyoming—resulted in the death of more than one firefighter during 2005. The relatively low death toll continues a long trend of greater firefighter safety. Between 1981 and 1985, the earliest data available, an average of 127 firefighters died each year. Between 2002 and 2005, the average fell to about 103 per year even though the United States had added over 70 million people. In fact, the 9/11 attacks killed more firefighters (343) than died in the entire country (299) between 1998 and 2000. Although firefighters show enormous bravery and suffer serious injuries at rates far greater than the general population, their job doesn’t seem to carry an enormous risk of death. With roughly 60 firefighters dying a year from fire, the overall death rate stands at about 1 in 16,000. By comparison, according to the National Safety Council, accidental falls claim about 1 in 16,000 Americans each year while motor vehicle incidents claim about 1 in 6,000. This may not tell the whole story, however, since a large proportion of people on volunteer firefighting rolls go years without fighting a major fire and many firefighter deaths involve older firefighters dieing as a result of overwork or ill health rather than fire itself. Still, it provides a vivid indication of just how exceptional the Charleston tragedy is. Fires have simply become less common, less destructive, and less dangerous than they once were in American society. From 1977, the earliest year for which comparable data are available, to today, the number of fires in the United States fell from nearly 3.5 million to about 1.5 million. Inflation-adjusted fire damage has declined by a third, despite enormous growth in wildfires and a near-tripling of the real gross domestic product. Fire deaths have seen similar shrinkage. A number of trends explain this felicitous situation. Much new construction is essentially fireproof, and sprinkler systems, where installed, appear to save enormous numbers of lives. The nine deaths in the Charleston warehouse could well be an all-time record death toll for deaths from a conventional fire in a building equipped with a sprinkler system. Enhanced 9-1-1 (which transmits callers’ addresses to firefighters), GPS, and mobile phones have all helped speed response. Americans have also largely stopped setting fires on purpose. Arson, such a severe problem during the 1970s that Congress debated anti-arson legislation nearly every year, almost never lands in the public spotlight anymore. The brave men who died in Charleston deserve every honor the city can bestow upon them. The Charleston Fire Department must, of course, determine if anything about its policies and procedures caused their deaths. But the historical record will likely show that these tragic deaths represent a blip in a long saga of falling fire rates, decreasing risk of fire, and greater safety for firefighters.