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Long Way to Go in Fire Safety

October 09, 1998

Los Angeles, the state of California and the nation as a whole have experienced dramatic declines in the number of structural fires--businesses and homes--since 1980. That's the good news to report now, during National Fire Prevention Week. But the United States still lags far behind other industrialized nations in nearly all fire categories.

This information comes from the U.S. Fire Administration, which is part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and from the National Fire Incident Reporting System. The latter logs information from 14,000 fire departments across the nation.

"America's fire death rate is one of the highest per capita in the industrialized world," says FEMA Director James Lee Witt. Among 14 major nations, only Hungary has a higher fire death toll per million people. Americans are five times more likely to die in a fire than the Swiss and nearly three times more likely than residents of the United Kingdom.

What goes on here, in a nation with perhaps the world's most advanced fire suppression technologies? The answers lie in fire prevention efforts and education, which only recently have come to the forefront in America. Many fire departments around the world have funding for fire prevention that is three times or more greater than that of their U.S. counterparts, and this is a big part of the problem. Add to that the risky and careless behavior of many Americans and you can see why U.S. statistics pale in comparison. And note that in many foreign climes stigma and shame are heaped upon the neighbor whose residential fire threatens other homes.

Americans and their fire departments have come a long way in practicing fire safety, but clearly there is a broad stretch to go. In National Fire Prevention Week, or any week, give that hard thought.

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