Housing Stock: Home fire safety
In 1998, 123 people died from accidental fire or flame injuries. Of these deaths, 70 occurred in a home fire.
While total deaths from fire fell by 47% from 1968 to 1998, deaths in private dwelling fires dropped by only 20%.
The primary source of data for this article is the Population Survey Monitor for May 1998 and February 2000, which included a set of questions on the adoption of fire safety measures in the home. Data for this article were also gained from the ABS Causes of Death collection, which classifies deaths according to the International classification of Diseases version 9 (ICD-9), and a statistical paper from the NSW Fire Brigades, Fires in the home 1987-1995.1
Fire and flame deaths:
Private dwelling fire fatalities include deaths in an apartment, boarding house, caravan, house, mobile home, private garage, and tenement. These fatalities can be caused by fires which started in the home as well as fires ignited away from the property (i.e. bush fires);
Deaths from fire in other structure includes deaths in a barn, church, dormitory, factory, hospital, hotel, school, store, and theatre;
Deaths from fire not in building or structure includes deaths due to fire in forest, grass, hay, lumber, mines, transport vehicle (except while in transit), and tunnels;
Death from clothing ignition encompasses heat sources like a cigarette or lighter, burning bedspread, blowtorch, fireplace, or bonfire. Deaths of this kind may also occur in private dwellings and other structures, but are included here only when the fatality occurs with the clothing ignition resulting from a controlled fire. If the dwelling also catches fire it is categorised as a death from a private or other dwelling fire; and
Deaths from inflammable material ignition encompasses death due to the ignition of inflammable material such as benzene, gasoline, fat, kerosene, paraffin, or petrol.
Serious house fires can cause extensive property damage and loss of life. They tend to be more prevalent through the colder months of the year: approximately one third of house fires in NSW occur between June and August of each year.1 Although the number of deaths from house fires is relatively small (representing 1.5% of accidental deaths and 0.06% of all deaths nationally in 1998), all accidental deaths are generally regarded as preventable.
Accordingly, regulations brought into the Building Code of Australia (BCA) by the States has made the installation of smoke alarms in new homes mandatory. Victoria introduced a smoke alarm requirement into the BCA in June 1993, and most other States introduced a similar requirement in November 1994. A national requirement was introduced into the BCA in 1996.2 Victoria also introduced a retrospective regulation in February 1997 that existing homes built before August 1997 must be equipped with smoke alarms.
The likelihood of death from fire in the home has fallen from 7 people per million in 1968 to 4 people per million in 1998. In 1998, 123 people died in a fire or from flames. Of these, 70 died from a fire in a private dwelling, making up the largest proportion (57%) of all accidental fire-related deaths. In 1968, 232 persons died in fires, and 87 of these (38%) were killed from a fire in a private dwelling. There was a slower decrease of deaths in private dwelling fires across Australia (down by 20%) than of overall deaths by fire (down 47%) between 1968 and 1998.
Fire is more likely to claim the lives of males in the home. In 1998, 63% of private dwelling fire deaths were male, as well as 64% of all accidental fire deaths. In 1968, 61% of those who perished in house fires were male, which was higher than the 56% of all accidental deaths in fires.
Clothing ignition is the second largest recognised cause of death from fire or flames. This cause has been declining, and while it made up 55 accidental fatalities in 1968, it accounted for only 13 in 1998.
ACCIDENTAL DEATH FROM FIRE OR FLAME, 1968-1998
|Cause of death|
|Private dwelling fire|
|Fire not in building or structure|
|Fire in other structure|
|Inflammable material ignition|
|Other fire or flame related|
|Private dwelling fire deaths per million population|
|Sources: Causes of Death 1968, 1978, 1988 (cat. no. 3302.1); unpublished data, Causes of Death 1998; Australian Demographic Trends 1997 (cat. no. 3102.0); Australian Demographic Statistics, September 1999 (cat. no. 3101.0).|
|House fire causes
Children refers to those aged 0-16 years responsible for the lighting of a fire in the home, due to the misuse of either heat from ignition or from the material ignited.
Falling asleep includes fires started by a dropped cigarette in bed or asleep with equipment left on.
Incendiary refers to cases where a legal decision or physical evidence indicates the fire was deliberately set.
Suspicious indicates the possibility that the fire may have been deliberately set, separate unrelated fires were found, or there were suspicious circumstances and no accidental or natural ignition factor was found.
All other causes includes all other misuses of heat from ignition, misuses of ignited material, mechanical failure, design, construction and installation deficiency, operational deficiency, natural ignitions and other ignition factors.
Causes of house fires
Information collected by the NSW Fire Brigades shows that fires identified as started by unattended heat sources caused 23% of accidental house fires in NSW in 1998, and increased by 86% between 1987 and 1998.
Although fires known to be started by people falling asleep (4%) made up a relatively small proportion of all house fires in New South Wales in 1998, their number increased between 1987 and 1998 by 54%.
However, the biggest increases belonged to the suspicious (136%) and incendiary (310%) categories. These fires, which may be deliberately set, usually cause more damage than do fires that are ignited accidentally.1
Whatever the main cause, many fires are triggered by some failure or malfunction in an appliance or a piece of equipment, whether unattended or not. In 1987, 73% of all house fires had equipment misuse or malfunction as the main contributing factor. This proportion had dropped to 62% in 1998.
In the cooking equipment category (30% increase between 1987 and 1998), fires from ovens rose by 79% from 138 fires in 1987 to 247 fires in 1998. While not a major cause, fires from portable cooking and warming units also rose sharply by 119%, from 27 fires in 1987 to 59 fires in 1998.
MAIN CAUSE OF HOUSE FIRE, NEW SOUTH WALES 1987 AND 1998
Change between 1987 and 1998
|Unattended heat sources|
|Short circuit, ground fault|
|Other electrical failure|
|Abandoned, discarded material|
|Combustible too close to heat|
|All other causes |
|Total fires |
|Source: New South Wales Fire Brigades, Fires in the home 1987-1995; New South Wales Fire Brigades, unpublished data.|
|Equipment starting house fires|
Heating systems include central heating units, water heaters, indoor open fireplaces, gas vent flues and chimneys and chimney connectors.
Cooking equipment includes stationary ovens and surface units, fixed deep fryers, portable cooking appliances, grease hoods and ducts.
Electrical distribution equipment includes wiring, meters, switches, cords, plugs, lamps and light bulbs.
Appliances include televisions, videos, dryers, washing machines, portable appliances, ceiling and exhaust fans, dishwashers and electronic equipment.
Service maintenance equipment includes torches, welding and cutting equipment.
Other object includes power saws, handheld garden maintenance equipment, electric fencing, flammable liquid transfer equipment and processing equipment.
EQUIPMENT STARTING HOUSE FIRES(a), NEW SOUTH WALES 1987 AND 1998
Change between 1987 and 1998
|Type of equipment|
|Undetermined or unreported|
|Electrical distribution equipment|
|Air conditioning, refrigeration|
|Service maintenance equipment|
|(a) Excludes fires where no equipment was involved in the ignition.|
(b) Includes processing and special equipment.
Source: New South Wales Fire Brigades, Fires in the home 1987-1995; New South Wales Fire Brigades, unpublished data.
|Fire safety measures|
Smoke detectors/smoke alarms are used for the detection and warning of smoke from fires and not for the detection of cigarette smoke.
Safety switch/circuit breaker is a device intended to isolate electricity supply to protected circuits, socket outlets or electrical equipment in the event of a current flow to earth which exceeds a predetermined value.
Fire extinguisher is a container that contains either water, carbon dioxide or foam and is designed to spray at and extinguish fires.
Fire blankets are used to extinguish small fires, and fires involving cooking oils and fats. The blankets may also be used as a thermal barrier against radiated heat and to control clothing fires.
Fire evacuation plan refers to any plan set out in case of an emergency (e.g. how residents should evacuate the building, and what they should do once they have evacuated the building).
External water supply refers to a non-mains external water supply which is suitable for fighting fire. It includes pools, dams and creeks.
Removal of external fuel source refers to the removal of all possible sources of fuel for a bushfire. This includes such measures as removing overhanging trees, removing dry leaves/firewood from around the home etc.
External sprinkler is a heavy duty sprinkler capable of wetting the home externally in order to help it become fire resistant.
Fire safety measures
In general, a high proportion of Australian households have some protection against fire in their home. The proportion with at least one fire safety measure in place increased from 82% in May 1998 to 88% in February 2000. This increase was mainly attributable to a rise in the proportion of homes in capital cities with a fire safety measure (from 79% to 88%). Already the most common form of protection in May 1998, smoke alarms or detectors recorded the biggest increase of all fire safety measures by February 2000 (up 13 percentage points in capital cities and 8 percentage points in other areas).
The location of a dwelling (in a capital city or not) does not appear to have a bearing on whether or not a fire safety measure was adopted in the home. While there was a 7 percentage point difference between capital cities (79%) and other areas (86%) in May 1998, there was virtually no difference (88% in both areas) by February 2000.
PROPORTION OF HOUSEHOLDS WITH FIRE SAFETY MEASURES, MAY 1998 AND FEBRUARY 2000
|Fire safety measure|
Safety switch/circuit breaker
Removal of external fuel source
|(a) Refers to the capital city statistical divisions.|
(b) The sum of the components may be greater than the total as some households may have employed more than one type of fire safety measure.
Source: Population Survey Monitor, May 1998 and February 2000 (cat. no. 4103.0).
Fire safety in different households
Separate houses were the most likely dwelling type to have a fire safety measure in place (90%), while flats, units and apartments were the least likely (68%). Yet a fire in a flat, unit or apartment could have the greater potential for loss of life due to the closer proximity of other dwellings. The installation of fire safety measures would therefore be just as important (if not more so) in higher density areas as in separate homes.
Properties rented from a private landlord or real estate agent were less likely to have a fire safety measure (76%) than those from a public housing authority (93%) or those which were privately owned (93% with a mortgage and 90% without).
The presence of dependant children in a family household made little difference to the implementation of a fire safety measure in the home, though 90% of family households had a fire safety measure in the home compared to 81% of non-family households. Group households were the least likely (76%) to adopt a fire safety measure in the home.
PREVALENCE OF FIRE SAFETY MEASURES IN AUSTRALIAN HOMES, FEBRUARY 2000
Any safety measure
Private landlord/real estate agent
|Other tenure type|
With dependant child(ren)
Without dependant children
|(a) Comprises smoke alarms, smoke detectors, safety switches, circuit breakers, fire extinguishers, and fire blankets.|
(b) Comprises external water supplies, external sprinklers, and the removal of external fuel sources.
(c) Comprises fire evacuation plans and other non-specified measures.
(d) Includes households that did not state whether they had any fire safety measures.
Source: Unpublished data, Population Survey Monitor, February 2000.
1 New South Wales Fire Brigades 1996, Fires in the home 1987-1995, Statistical Research Paper, Issue 3, New South Wales Fire Brigades, Sydney.
2 Australian Building Codes Board 1996, Building Code of Australia 1996, Australian Building Codes Board, Canberra.