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U.S. fire deaths dip to record low Prevention termed key factor, as case of Jackson, Miss., shows


JACKSON, Miss. -- If fighting fire can be likened to a perpetual war, then this nation is winning -- gradually, quietly, but inexorably.

Last year, 4,275 U.S. civilians died as a result of fire, the fewest since standardized record-keeping began in 1913. The number is more dramatic when the nation's population growth is considered: 16.4 deaths per million population last year compared with 25.3 deaths per million just 12 years ago.

Why such a leap? While firefighter heroics and their contemporary techniques have helped -- horse-drawn wagons and bucket brigades being a thing of the past -- the answers don't hinge on what firefighters call "spraying the wet stuff on the red stuff."

Rather, it has been a thoughtful, multi-pronged attack in which battles are won by not having them waged in the first place.

It's called prevention.

"It's rare that a life is saved in a fire," said Joseph L. Donovan, fire chief in Jackson, Miss. "You have to be honest. When we get a call for a fire, we've already lost the battle."

In Jackson, a city of about 200,000 given the nickname "Chimneyville" -- only the brick towers were left standing after the city was burned three times by Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman -- officials have discovered that their best firefighting tool is the pre-emptive strike.

For many years, Mississippi has led all states in per-capita fire deaths. Last year, 102 people died in Mississippi fires, compared with 114 in Maryland, a state with nearly twice as many residents.

To help solve the problem, Jackson invested in community outreach, public service announcements and other techniques geared toward preventing fires in the first place. Many programs were aimed at children and senior citizens -- the groups most at risk of dying in a blaze.

Despite initial resistance from rank-and-file firefighters more accustomed to battling burning buildings, the effort seems to be paying off. In 1993, Jackson lost 10 residents to fire. Last year, the number was four. So far this year, three lives have been lost in fires.

Jackson's strategy, said officials with the U.S. Fire Administration, is a microcosm of what has succeeded across the nation.

"It's a much bigger issue than getting firefighters better hoses or more powerful pumps," said James E. Greene, the administration's chief scientist. "It's not about one technology or one source."

In 1913, about 8,900 died in fires nationwide, according to the National Safety Council. It was an era when more people lighted and heated their homes by flame, lived in rural areas, and were less likely to own a telephone.

Over time, major fires and the outrage that followed them led to reforms. The 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. in New York killed 146 garment workers and led to fire drills for factories, schools and theaters.

Boston's 1942 Coconut Grove nightclub fire, which killed 492 people, led to better exits in public buildings, emergency lighting and widespread use of automatic sprinklers. During this decade, the deadliest fire has been the one at New York's illegal Happy Land social club in 1990 that took 87 lives.

"You think of those large life-loss fires -- we haven't had any in recent years," said Thomas R. Brace, Minnesota's fire marshal and president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals. "The changes made a difference."

Success in reducing fire deaths has been linked to three factors: smoke detectors, engineering and public education.

Smoke detectors became comparatively inexpensive by the late and their increasing use has probably been the most decisive factor in saving lives. The chances of dying in a fire drop by 50 percent in a home with a smoke detector, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimates.

Engineering improvements have helped. Building and fire codes ensure that fires are less likely to spread. Federal regulations have forced consumer products to be more fire resistant.

Education viewed as critical

Because the vast majority of fires are a result of someone's actions -- or inaction -- education is considered critical.

When Jackson's Chief Donovan and his wife, Jody, a career fire safety educator and fellow Massachusetts native, arrived in Mississippi four years ago, an emphasis was almost immediately put on educating the community.

A former superintendent of the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md., Chief Donovan was initially hired to evaluate the Jackson Fire Department and he pronounced it one of the worst he had seen.

"The solution to the fire problem is in education," said Chief Donovan, 59, who manages a department of 400. "Many fire chiefs here still don't believe that."

With help from the NFPA, the Donovans' campaign has included sponsoring a "Learn Not To Burn" curriculum in schools and day care facilities, teaching youngsters such things as the "stop, drop and roll" when their clothes catch on fire.

Firefighters regularly visit nursing homes and senior citizens centers. When a fire does take place, officials meet with neighbors to explain what they can do to prevent a similar outbreak.

Thomas J. Lariviere, past president of the Mississippi Fire Chiefs Association, has pushed for similar efforts across the state. "What we're dealing with is a behavioral problem for the most part," he said. "It just makes sense that the way to change behavior is through education."

The effort was somewhat easier for Jackson, the state's capital, than for much of rural Mississippi. There is no statewide 911 system here. Nor is there a state building code. The state fire marshal's office has no authority to inspect private buildings.

Those are the things the Donovans and their supporters are trying to change. A recent $200,000 federal grant is helping pay for the installation of smoke detectors in rural homes across the state. Jackson has also become one of the first U.S. cities to adopt a mandatory counseling program for youngsters who set fires.

Too early to declare victory

While Jackson's early signs of success could help, national fire experts are concerned that victory could be declared too early.

Successful as the nation has been in reducing deaths from fire, it has only in the past 20 years begun to close the gap with other industrialized nations. According to U.S. Fire Administration statistics, Japan, Canada, New Zealand and most European countries have fewer per-capita fire deaths.

A person is twice as likely to die in a fire in the United States than in France. The odds of survival are even greater in Spain, Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Why do other countries suffer fewer fire deaths? Many of them, in fact, spend a smaller portion of their wealth on firefighting. Experts believe the answer may lie in public attitudes toward fire.

James Crawford, fire marshal in Portland, Ore., and a student of fire safety efforts in Japan, said that the Japanese were less prone to seeing fires as accidents and the people whose negligence may cause them as victims. "In Japan, people are chastised for having a fire in their home," he said. "Our society views these events as an unpreventable accident or the cost of doing business."

More U.S. residents die in traffic accidents, in falls or in drownings than in fires. If fire-related losses were as bad today as they were 100 years ago, their cost would be $800 billion annually instead of the $8.1 billion reported last year.

"In most cases, fire takes lives in ones and twos and it's overlooked," said Carrye Brown, head of the U.S. Fire Administration. "But the power to reduce fire is largely in our grasp. We don't realize that until it happens to us."

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