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Alcohol Intoxication in Fire Deaths- Protecting Against Self-Induced Susceptibility

A recent publication by Doyle (2019) found that more than 50% of people dying in fires in the Republic of Ireland had alcohol in their blood, and approximately 64% of these individuals had a blood alcohol level of 0.160% or more. These findings are consistent with those of Ball and Bruck (2004), who determined that a person’s ability to awaken to audible alarms was significantly reduced when the subject consumed alcohol. Regardless of the type of audible tone (T-3, voice, etc.), Ball and Bruck found that 36% of subjects with a blood alcohol level of only 0.05% slept through tones less than 95 decibels (dB) or did not respond at any sound level. The percentage of subjects who slept through the alarms increased to 41% when the blood alcohol level was increased to 0.08%. The conclusion of the study was that one third of people with a blood alcohol level of 0.05% and half of people with a blood alcohol level of 0.08% will not respond to a smoke alarm at the standard code mandated sound levels (75 dB at the pillow location).

The susceptibility of alcohol intoxicated individuals is further corroborated by Ahren's (2019) most recent report, Smoke Alarms in U.S. Home Fires, which showed that smoke alarms were present and operated in 42% of fire deaths. A smoke alarm cannot pick someone up and remove them from a fire; an individual must be capable of self-preservation. However, given that smoke alarms are the only widely-available, code-required technology designed to provide occupants with early warning of a fire in their residence, the Ahren's data suggests that the fire protection engineering community needs to consider other ways to protect susceptible populations. This issue raises interesting ethical questions when considering human behavior in fire protection engineering design: Do we view those whose susceptibility is self-induced in the same way as those whose susceptibility is inherent? Do we view susceptibility from alcohol and drug impairment in the same way as we view susceptibility from age or disability? These are complex societal questions, but perhaps the first step is education through community risk reduction programs as we work to find a solution to reduce the risk to all susceptible populations.

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