3 Analysis
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The Social Dimension of Fire

Various analyses have been carried out in recent years which show that certain factors represent an increased risk of experiencing a fire. For instance, in the home, fires most often occur in properties which are old, rented, converted flats, on council estates, in inner city areas, in high density or socially deprived areas or are in high physical disorder. Householders most likely to suffer fire include those that smoke, use drugs or alcohol, use chip pans, have young children, are lone parents, have a limiting disability, have a low income or are elderly.

Most households in these categories are less likely to own a smoke alarm and could be seen as particularly at risk from fire. In many households a number of these factors combine to increase the risk still further.

The important phrase to remember in relation to these facts is that “fire discriminates”. Whilst it can strike anywhere, it is more likely to occur in areas and households in the lower socio-economic groups. For example, national statistics show the risk of death from fire is 16 times higher among children in the lower socio-economic group compared to children in the highest. Arson rates are 30 times higher in poorer areas with a 15 times increased chance of death compared to “affluent” areas. It is a sad fact that an older person is far more likely to die in a fire than any other age group.

The 2001 census data has indicated that Merseyside has an increasingly aged population (compared to 1991 census data), particularly in Sefton (18% increase in 85 year olds) and Wirral (17% increase in 85 year olds).

The numbers of pensioners living alone in Merseyside has increased by more than the national average in the 10 years between the censuses. Furthermore, the number of pensioners with a long term limiting illness has increased by over 30% in both Knowsley and Liverpool, although the number of pensioners in rented property has decreased by over 30%. Older people are particularly vulnerable to fire with the vast majority of fire deaths occurring in the over 60s age group. Often this is accompanied by other factors that add to the vulnerability such as mobility and sensory difficulties, and a lack of ability to respond to danger.

The census data also shows that the number of lone parent households is increasing whilst numbers of people in rented accommodation including public sector rented flats is decreasing.

The elderly are statistically less likely to have a smoke alarm than many other groups in society. When additional factors such as living alone and limiting illness are added, the risks to this group increase. We are committed to our programme of HFRAs, detailed elsewhere in this Plan and we aim to target the groups most at risk of a domestic fire and those groups less likely to own a smoke alarm.

The census also found a big increase in the number of people born outside of the United Kingdom. Nationally this increase is 37%. Most areas of Merseyside show increases of less than this but Liverpool has increased by 56%. This is why we have introduced our innovative Fire Safety Advocate scheme which is already targetting ethnic minority communities within Merseyside and there are plans to extend this initiative in the future.

The picture painted above clearly shows that fire does have a social dimension. It impacts disproportionately on the vulnerable in the community in the most vulnerable areas. These areas and people will share many other characteristics of vulnerable communities such as higher crime, higher unemployment, poorer access to services and other factors. The fact that relatively large areas of Merseyside fall within the highest ratings of social deprivation means that the challenge faced by Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service is probably greater than anywhere else in the country. But it is a challenge we have been addressing for some time and will continue to do.

Fatal Fires in the Home

By far the majority of fire deaths occur in the home. In Merseyside, an analysis has been carried out of fatal fires which has been published separately. This analysis helps to guide community safety activity which is described in the next chapter. The following paragraphs summarise details of fatal fires in 2002/03.

Our corporate objectives set demanding 5 year targets for reducing the number of deaths that occur in Merseyside. The target was first set in 1999 when the average figure was 20+. The aim was to reduce this by 40% to 12 by 2004. This figure was achieved in 2002/03. See the chart below. Every fatality from fire is a tragedy and we aim to drive this figure down further and have set a demanding target of less than 11 accidental fire deaths in the current year.

Fatal fires in the home

Where are people dying?

All 12 victims of accidental fires in 2002/03 died in their own home with terraced houses (6) and flats (3) the main property type involved. Of the 12 victims, 8 were in the room where the fire started and 4 were elsewhere in the property. Of those 4 that were elsewhere, 3 were on the same floor. Liverpool had the highest number (6) followed by Wirral (4) while Knowsley and St.Helens had one each. Sefton had no fire deaths during 2002/03.

Who died in fires?

Of the 12 accidental fire deaths in 2002/03, eight were male and the ages of victims ranged from 21-85 years old. Nine of the victims were over the age of 60 years which, once again, confirms the vulnerability of older people to fire. The chart below illustrates this graphically.

Who died in fires?

Of the 12 people that died, six lived alone and five of these were male. In six fires there was evidence that alcohol had either been a factor in the fire starting in the first place, or contributed to the victims inability to escape from fire. We know that three of the victims had recognised mobility problems and regularly used walking aids although it is likely, that because of their age, others also had mobility difficulties.

Sadly, this fits a pattern throughout the country where the factors that make someone most vulnerable to fire are age, mobility difficulties, sensory difficulties and lifestyle issues.

What were the causes of fire?

The causes of fatal fires in 2002/03 were smoking materials (4), cooking facilities (4), radiated heat (2) and candles (2). Of the 12 fires, 5 started in living rooms, 5 in kitchens and 2 started in bedrooms.

It can be seen from the above statistics that the most common cause of fires which led to death are smoking materials and cooking materials. This often involves people who have fallen asleep dropping cigarettes onto soft furnishings and people leaving chip pans unattended. This is also the picture nationally which is why national fire safety/awareness campaigns are targeted at these areas.

How many of the victims had smoke alarms fitted?

Only two of the 12 fatal fires had properly fitted and functioning smoke alarms installed in the affected property. There were a number of incidents where the smoke alarms were damaged or missing. Having a working smoke alarm gives substantial protection/warning against the consequences and threat of fire.

When did the fires occur?

The winter months accounted for the majority of fire deaths yet again with 7 of them falling victim to fire between November and the end of February. This is mirrored nationally every year with more fire deaths during winter as opposed to summer. Once again local and national campaigns will highlight this issue.

2002/03 was unusual compared to previous years in that a significant percentage of fire deaths occurred during the day. 4 fire deaths occurred between midnight and 06.00 hours and 2 occurred in early evening hours.

How quickly do we attend fatal fires?

When domestic fires break out, they can spread so quickly that, by the time the fire service arrives, it can be too late. In addition, the very nature of fire with massive amounts of toxic smoke and heat, a person can quickly die even whilst sleeping. Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service achieves very high standards in terms of its speed of attendance at fires. This is powerful evidence that speed of attendance alone is not going to reduce the tragic impact of fire.

It is pleasing to note that fire deaths/injuries and dwelling house fires are falling and our main priority is to continue this trend. To achieve our vision we need to access those in our community that are “hard to reach” vulnerable groups. We are committed to working in partnership with other agencies across the area to achieve the vision of a “fire safe community”.

To ensure we can further improve our services to the areas of greatest need the database used by our dedicated Incident Investigation Team has been considerably expanded to capture a much wider range of information from each incident investigated. This includes areas such as ethnicity, secondary/tertiary causes of fire, whether a HFRA had been offered, whether other agencies were involved, etc.

Real progress in creating the vision of a Merseyside Fire Safe Community is now being achieved. However, to build on the current reduction trends further stringent, but achievable, targets have been set for 2004/05 to further reduce deaths/injuries from fire, and dwelling house fires and details of these are contained in the Action Plan.

School Fires

Schools have been proved to be particularly vulnerable to deliberate fires. The impact of a school fire is often devastating and spreads well beyond the damage to the structure. Pupils and staff lose work and materials that are often irreplaceable and represent years of work. Damage to a school cannot be quickly repaired so there is added disruption to pupils and staff as they are ‘displaced’ to other facilities creating pressure at the new venue.

Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service has been promoting the far wider installation of sprinklers in schools that would prevent such tragedy in the community. We are committed to working closely with Local Education Authorities to find cost effective means of improving safety.

Commercial and Industrial Property

Both local and national analysis of fires in commercial and industrial property highlight the importance of proper workplace risk assessment and measures to reduce the risk of deliberate fires. A fire in a business damages not only the fabric of the building and stock but there are consequential losses in terms of trade and business continuity. Many businesses never recover from a fire with the subsequent loss of employment in the local community.

Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service recognise the ambitions of all sections of the community to make Merseyside a successful and thriving economy. This is why we will help business to comply with the law regarding fire safety and enforce that law where appropriate. We will also develop our Arson Task Force to reduce the devastating impact of deliberate fires.

Other Fires

Our analysis also allows us to view ‘smaller’ fires such as vehicles, rubbish, grass, etc. For instance, a partnership with Liverpool University allowed a study of vehicle fires in Merseyside that showed a massive rise in recent years, as experienced nationally, but that a small number of wards experienced a massively disproportionate number of fires. We can then work with local districts in the areas where we are needed the most.

The following chart shows an analysis of fires and non fire incidents over the five year period April 1997 – March 2002.

Analysis of fires and non fire incidents over the five year period April 1997 – March 2002

©Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service