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Copyright International Fire Protection 2016
Most fires take place in the victim’s home. Here; Norwegian fire fighters on training, while researchers from SP Fire Research (former SINTEF NBL) perform measurements as part of a research project.

Fire safety for vulnerable people

Fire statistics in many countries show that a majority of the victims of fatal fires belongs to groups in the society that can be categorized as vulnerable, and efforts to prevent this must be efficiently targeted.

Background

In 2015 SP Fire Research, together with NTNU Social Research, published a report on how to avoid fatal fires among vulnerable groups. The project was commissioned by the Norwegian authorities as a part of their efforts to reduce the number of fire fatalities in the country, and had its basis in Norwegian fire statistics. By knowing more about the individual fire fatalities it is possible and important to find efficient and targeted measures that can prevent future fire fatalities, beyond what can be achieved through measures directed at the general public.

Vulnerability to fire

Approximately 1/3 of the victims in Norwegian fatal fires were 70 years or older, however, only about 10% of the population is aged 70 or more. This makes elderly people the largest group at risk today. Most fatal fires take place in the victims’ homes. Studies have also shown that alcohol has played a significant role in the start and the outcome of fires. Looking into the actual incidents, as is currently being done in an ongoing study of the fire investigations of all Norwegian fatal fires the last 10 years, it is clear that reduced cognitive and/or physical abilities play an important role in individual fire risk.

Whereas the grouping of people may be useful it is important to focus on factors that increase the fire risk. For example, old age itself is not increasing the risk of dying from a fire, but there are a number of cognitive and physical challenges that may arise with increasing age. These challenges affect the probability of fire and the seriousness of its consequences. Traditional, predefined categories of risk groups (e.g. elderly, drug users, people with reduced mental and physical functions and socio-economic status) may not be very useful because they do not necessarily capture the ongoing fire preventive work, or the actual needs and abilities of individuals.

In our work, we have defined vulnerable groups as groups of people that, for various reasons, are more likely to start a fire or have limited ability to:

  1. prevent fire
  2. detect fire
  3. warn about and extinguish fire
  4. evacuate without assistance

Placing the individual with his or her capabilities and challenges in the centre, the person is surrounded by other circumstances that will influence the risk of fatal fire, see figure 1 below. Interaction between the layers in figure 1 will be able to mitigate the vulnerability caused by a disability that would otherwise lead to increased fire risk.

Experiments on cooking fires and stove guards, at SP Fire Research (formerly SINTEF NBL). A new European standard for the performance of different classes of stove guards has been published.

Experiments on cooking fires and stove guards, at SP Fire Research (formerly SINTEF NBL). A new European standard for the performance of different classes of stove guards has been published.

Organizational environment

Individuals are surrounded by an organizational environment that will vary because the environment can be partly formal and controlled, but also dependent on informal, cultural, relational and competence structures. A fire risk assessment should take all this into consideration even though municipal services vary and preventive work via the local fire service are organized differently.

Elements that should be considered during fire safety assessment for vulnerable individuals in the society:

Social and organisational environment

  • Provision of public sevices
  • Voluntary sector
  • Social network

Physical environment

  • Housing stock
  • Housing Areas

Vulnerable group

  • Physical impairment
  • Cognitive challenges

Risk factors and required functionality of technical measures

One individual may experience a combination of several risk factors. The example with elderly people shows this clearly where individuals may experience several different physical and cognitive challenges, including reaction, mobility and speed. Many elderly are also living alone, which also could have a major impact on the outcome of a fire.

Physical impairment

Hearing disability can involve challenges with inability or difficulties with hearing noise from the fire or fire alarms, and there may be difficulties in communicating with the fire service. Detection and alarm systems should be designed so that a fire outbreak easily can be registered, independent of sound, and the alarm unit must be placed where the individual can register it. The possibility to communicate with an alarm centre as well as the fire service should be strengthened; this may involve technical aid but also training of the fire service and planning for such situations.

Challenges related to visual impairment can be escape through unfamiliar evacuation routes, perceiving risk situations (burning candles, electrical appliances that should have been shut off, covering of heating appliances, etc.) and locating the fire. In addition, high volume alarm sounds may inhibit the person from registering other vital information. A detection and alarm system should preferably be able to inform the individual where a fire is detected and what actions the individual should take. To minimise the risk from heated electrical appliances these should be controlled by a timer. They could also be fitted with alarms that would warn the individual if such appliances are turned on or left turned on unintentionally.

Reduced mobility can result in slow reaction and escape. The dependency of a wheel chair could further limit the possibilities of escaping a fire, for example by not being able to use a lift/elevator or having to move from a bed to a wheelchair. In addition, new risks of ignition can be introduced through wear and tear on for example the electrical system and through some electrical aids.

Cognitive challenges

Our cognitive abilities are our ability to think, recognise and to gather and process information and knowledge, including sense perception, attentiveness, memory, logical skills, problem solving and language. Challenges with these factors can influence fire safety and in many cases (such as unpredictable behaviour) it is difficult to implement any measures directed at the specific challenges. Therefore, measures that allow for human errors to a large extent – “forgiving systems” – may be needed, for example the use of highly fire safe materials (e.g. fire safe upholstered furniture) in the individual’s dwelling.

Figure 1 Circumstances that influence the risk of fatal dwelling fires

Figure 1 Circumstances that influence the risk of fatal dwelling fires

Language, culture and attitudes

Language, culture and attitudes may affect the level of fire safety, by how they influence the way people detect, assess and react to fire risk by variations in social networks (for example, living alone affects the probability of detecting and escaping fire), quality of houses (e.g. poor quality of the electrical system is a fire risk) and the level of general maintenance (untidiness and collection of waste is a fire risk). Language barriers can be important for understanding instructions for safe use of appliances, for fire safety instructions and for communicating with the fire service in case of fire.

Where there are challenges because of differences in culture, or attitudes that affect the fire safety, there should be a focus on help and information about maintenance on fire safety equipment, and on behaviour that would reduce the risk of fire.

Technical measures to increase fire safety

There is a number of equipment and technical aids available that can improve fire safety for vulnerable groups considerably. However attitude, awareness and information directed at fire safety should always be focused on.

Many fires start in the kitchen, and a stove guard can be efficient. A stove guard monitor the stove and will cut the power when it detects elevated temperatures on the cooking top. In Europe there is a new standard (EN 50615:2015 Household and similar electrical appliances – Safety – Particular requirements for devices for fire prevention and suppression for electric hobs (cooktops)) defining the functionality for three different classes of stove guards.

Smoking causes many fires and as of 2011 all cigarettes sold on the EU-market shall be self-extinguishing if not actively smoked, so called reduced ignition propensity cigarettes. However it is uncertain whether this measure has had the desired effect on the fire statistics, and it is also uncertain whether the current European test method for assessment of the ignition propensity of cigarettes, EN 16156:20104, actually ensures a high enough degree of fire safety.

Some types of electrical equipment can lead to fires when used carelessly. Examples are equipment that generate heat and lead to ignition such as electrical ovens, washing machines and dryers. By using different types of component protection electrical equipment can be shut off when the system detects a dangerous situation. This is technology that has become more common in recent years. It is important to evaluate and adjust these types of systems to the user so that it offers the required safety and does not lead to limitations in everyday life.

Since the properties of the furnishings in a room will be of great importance for the early phases of a fire, fire safe furnishing (e.g. upholstered furniture and mattresses) can prevent a fire or at least prolong the available escape time.

Early warning and alarms are vital to allow for extinguishing and necessary escape time; however they must be adapted to the users in order to be efficient, e.g. visual or sensory alarms for those with hearing impairment.

Different types of automatic extinguishing systems can be installed in homes, and would be able to limit a fire. The most common systems extinguish with water, using sprinkler or water mist technologies. Some are large permanent systems, but also smaller residential sprinkler systems as well as mobile units are available. As more people from vulnerable groups will be living longer in their own homes, this should be an increasingly useful fire preventive measure.

Final remarks

The prevention of fatal fires for vulnerable groups is an issue that requires attention and cooperation from several public sectors and also cooperation between different branches of science. The physical, social and organizational surroundings of the individual should be recognised to a higher degree, rather than grouping them into certain categories of people in society. Fire preventive work for people in vulnerable groups is most efficient when risk factors connected to the vulnerable person in question are assessed specifically, and when the right people and services are involved. New technology is continually being developed that can be very useful, and it is important that these are clearly defined with respect to performance requirements with respect to their functionality in specific risk situations.

For more information, go to www.spfr.no

Karolina Storesund is Research Scientist.

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