Each year in the United States, around 4,300 people lose their lives in house fires. Many more are injured. Around 3,600 youngsters are seriously injured or killed each year due to fire. Forty percent of these victims are under the age of 5, 70% are under 10, and children playing with fire is the leading cause of fire related deaths of children. In fact, fire or burns is the third leading cause of unintentional injuries in children. Every year, around 850 youngsters lose their lives in house fires. Smoke inhalation, not the fire itself, is the leading cause of death in fire related fatalities.
Home fires: Assessing the risk
In Ringling, Oklahoma three people, including two young adolescents, were killed in an overnight fire. The state Fire Marshal’s office said that space heaters, an electric oven, and an electric stovetop were all being used as heat sources to warm the home. (USA Today, 1-6-2009, p. 6A) In St. Lewis, Missouri, three young siblings died in a blaze that fire officials suspect started in the apartments kitchen. Authorities say the apartment did contain smoke detectors ... but with dead batteries. The childrens’ father and grandma suffered burns but escaped. (USA Today, 8-10-2009, p.5A) In Clairton, Pennsylvania, three children, ages 9, 6, and 2, died after becoming trapped in an upstairs bedroom when an early morning fire erupted in a townhome. A medical examination revealed the two girls and a boy died of smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning. (USA Today, 10-26-2009, p. 8A) In Pierre, South Dakota, two young children died in a May 2008 house fire that was ignited by their older brother. (USA Today, 10-27-2009, p.8A)
These stories and tens of thousands of others just like them are generally relegated to short news briefs that do not garner much media attention. Yet the chance of a child dying or being seriously injured in a house fire is more then 1000 times the threat that sex offenders in the community might pose. At current rates, it would take the half a million or so registered sex offenders in the country more than 1000 years before they would even come close to killing the number of children who perish in one single year in house fires. Yet many parents spend more time worrying about the mostly imaginary threat of “community predators,” while largely neglecting the dangers of fire, which hits much closer to home.
When a home is on fire, children suffer the most
Sadly, children make up a disproportionate share of those injured and killed in house fires. Young children are especially at risk. Children under age 5 make up more than half of all deaths from home fires involving children under 16 (52% in 2007), and were 46% of the injuries that year. Kids have a couple of disadvantages that work against them.
First, very young children are less capable or even unable of rescuing themselves, which means they end up trapped in fires far more often than adults. Secondly, their smaller size and stature combined with immature organs means that they more quickly succumb to the heat and smoke from a fire. Since smoke inhalation is the leading cause of death in house fires, this puts kids at a marked disadvantage.
Helping children survive a house fire
The good news is that with a little bit of parental preparation and fire safety education for the kids, parents can hedge against the most significant dangers. Children 4 and up can self rescue from many situations when they are taught what to do ahead of time, and there are even cases of older children rescuing their younger siblings when they were trapped by a fire. If parents do their part, conducting fire drill and ensuring smoke alarms are in working order while teaching fire safety skills to children there is no reason that any child has to perish in a house fire.