Reducing the U.S. Fire Problem- Has Fire Protection Engineering Hit Its Peak?

In 1973, the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control published America Burning, a report which introduced various recommendations to reduce the fire problem in the United States. The United States Fire Administration and National Fire Academy were established based upon the recommendations of this report, and federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Standards and Technology (then the National Bureau of Standards) were tasked with supporting fire prevention research initiatives. While the fire protection engineering profession existed well before America Burning was published, the recommendations within the document brought it into the spotlight. With spectacular enhancements in fire detection and suppression technologies, life safety, and code and standards, the fire protection engineering community has made considerable advancements. In 1977, the United States had 3,264,500 fire incidents and 7,395 deaths compared to 1,318,500 incidents and 3,655 deaths in 2018. This equates to a 40% reduction in fire incidents and a 49% reduction in fire deaths over four decades.

Given these substantial decreases, it would seem that we must be doing something right; however, a review of fire incident and death statistics from the last four years, shown in Table 1, suggests that we may be approaching a stagnation point.

Table 1: Fire Incident and Death Statistics- 2015 to 2018

This data suggests that risk mitigation efforts may have reached a plateau, or perhaps, new/continued efforts are achieving de minimis returns. This raises some important questions- Is stagnation acceptable? When can we say we have solved the US fire problem? Is this the best we can do? These questions have not been adequately addressed by the fire protection engineering community, but, as innovators, it would seem we could always do better.

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