Burning concerns over fire safety

Last week the Commercial published an article containing several admonishments about fire safety. Administrators from the Pine Bluff Fire Department provided a list of techniques and practices that could minimize the risk and increase the survivability of residential fires.

Given the number of fire fatalities in Arkansas, generally, and in Jefferson County specifically, we thought these warnings deserved a bit of statistical perspective. To begin with, if one looks at fire-related deaths in Arkansas over the past decade, we see that the Natural State consistently runs between two and three time the national average. In 2009, the national rate per 1,000,000 population was 11.0. The Arkansas rate during 2009, was 28.1.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention cites some troubling facts about fire safety in the U.S. Among the CDC’s findings are that: During 2010, someone died in a fire every 169 minutes, and someone was injured every 30 minutes; About 85 percent of all U.S. fire deaths in 2009 occurred in homes; In 2010, fire departments responded to 384,000 home fires in the United States, which claimed the lives of 2,640 people (not including firefighters) and injured another 13,350, not including firefighters; Most victims of fires die from smoke or toxic gases and not from burns; Smoking is the leading cause of fire-related deaths; Cooking is the primary cause of residential fires.

From these facts we can infer that there are several things we can do to reduce risk. First, we can stop smoking. Second, install and maintain smoke detectors throughout the home. Third, we can practice greater cooking safety and keep a fully charged fire extinguisher readily accessible in the kitchen.

The CDC also identifies several groups in society that are at special risk of fire death and injury. They include:

Children 4 and under;

Adults ages 65 and older;

African Americans;

Native Americans.

Those in poverty

Persons living in rural areas

Persons living in manufactured homes or substandard housing.

From this list we can conclude that many Pine Bluff residents exist in a perfect storm of increased fire risk. As we have disproportionately great numbers of persons who are either elderly or very young; who are poor; and who live in aging or otherwise unsafe housing — it is no wonder that we face the problems we do.

It’s easy enough the see how we came to such a sorry state of fire safety. When people are poor; living on a fixed income or otherwise struggling to make ends meet, the niceties of smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and safe housing often fall to more pressing concerns of eating, heating and medicine.

As the fire department indicated, they will gladly help individuals with fire safety. They have multiple programs through which they can assist residents. They are just a phone call away in most instances.

While we will always have fire injuries and death, these statistics demonstrate conclusively that there are measures we can take to decrease those deadly numbers. One thing is an aggressive program of meaningful housing inspections. No one in this county — or this city —should be permitted to live in an unsafe residence. Whether it’s an apartment, free-standing house, manufactured home or other structure, no one should ever have the option of living below a humane level of safety. For far too long we have allowed private interests to dictate the average conditions of low income housing stock. As we turn toward a new mayoral administration, this needs to change. If we are to progress as a city many things will have to change — this chief among them.