Good Question: Do We Have Fewer Fires Than We Used To?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Officials in London called Wednesday’s devastating high-rise fire “unprecedented.” The blaze started on the second floor and quickly spread to the top. As of Wednesday afternoon, crews were still searching for survivors and 12 people were confirmed dead.

It’s rare to see a fire so large in the U.S. these days. So, do we now have fewer fires? Good Question.

“Fortunately, we don’t see many like that,” says St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard. “Most high-rise buildings in the U.S. are now fitted with sprinklers.”

Zaccard says U.S. high-rises built since the mid-1970s are required to have sprinklers and most older high-rises have been retrofitted. According to a St. Paul Fire survey, 97 percent of the high-rises in St. Paul have sprinkler systems.

At this point, it’s unclear if the Grenfell Tower had sprinklers or if they didn’t work.

Zaccard credits sprinkler systems and smoke alarms as a main reason for the dramatic drop in the U.S. fatality rate due to fire. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), there were around 6,000 U.S. fire deaths a year in 1985 compared to 3,200 deaths due to fire in 2014.

Zaccard says how buildings are made has contributed to a drop on fire fatalities. Commercial buildings now have more fire separation and firewalls that keep fires better contained if they start.

The fire marshal points to prevention, though, as a key reason for the drop in structure fires. Structure fires in the U.S. have fallen 40 percent since the mid-1980s. According to the National Fire Protection Association, there were slightly more than 500,000 in 2014.

Zaccard attributes that drop to better building codes, education and technology. Space heaters, stoves, furnaces are safer than they used to be. People are also more aware of the dangers around cooking, heating and smoking.

“We’ve been in schools for the past 30 years teaching fire safety and now those people are occupying homes,” he says.

More from Heather Brown
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