fire risk management

Hoarding – a lethal habit

Hoarding disorder was classified as an illness in the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5), which defines it as

‘the persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions.’

It goes on to state that:

‘These behaviors can often be quite severe and even threatening. Beyond the mental impact of the disorder, the accumulation of clutter can create a public health issue by completely filling people’s homes and creating fall and fire hazards.’

Last month, Atlantic magazine drew attention to the fire risks of hoarding in a feature article which opens with the death of a US firefighter trapped by piles of accumulated material in a residential home.  The article points out that the risk is not only to firefighters:

“Among the condition’s many devastating mental and physical consequences is that it can the sufferer more likely to die in a fire. Clutter can block exits and trip residents when they try to escape. Boxes and papers act like kindling, making a fire rage more intensely.”

It is an issue that fire organisations around the world are trying to address.  Some, such as the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in Melbourne, the UK London Fire Brigade, and the US National Fire Protection Association provide guide sheets on hoarding, aimed at helping families to understand the issues and to find ways of helping.  The Chief Fire Officers Association (UK) provided this list of myth-busters around hoarding during their Hoarding Awareness week in 2014.

Some fire personnel in the US are joining ‘hoarding task forces’ which are multi-agency groups consisting of health, social, and emergency service representatives that work together to address the emotional, health, and safety issues associated with hoarding.


Students and fire risk

In our last blog we looked at the older community, a vulnerable group in terms of fire risk.

Another vulnerable group is young people – school leavers and students, those who have just entered adulthood and independent living.

As Ian Lambie et al. point out in this recent research from Auckland University  [abstract only],

“18–24 year olds are at risk due to membership in high risk groups [such as] renting,crowded housing, socio-economic status, substance use and smoking.”

Student vulnerability in rental accommodation is also reported in research commissioned this year by UK safety charity Electrical Safety First (press release).  The National Union of Students (NUS) surveyed over 1100 students in rented accommodation.  Reported problems included unfixed exposed wiring, unresolved issues of damp or water around the electrics, ignored scorching around sockets and light fittings, and problems with broken, damaged or overheating appliances supplied with the property. Most of these stem from landlord negligence rather than student behaviour.

Students in hostels and halls of residence are similarly vulnerable, mostly due to risky activities, according to this 2013 research commissioned by UK insurer, Zurich Municipal (Press release).  The report’s findings include:

‘two thirds of students (66%) have cooked after midnight and one in two (50%) have done so under the influence of alcohol, but a significant number (33%) aren’t aware of the fire safety procedures in their halls….  43% admitting they dry clothes over a heater or radiator, 24% often burning candles or incense and 43% doing all of this while also storing alcohol in their student room.’

In response, the insurers created this mnemonic for a STUDENT to manage fire risk:

Snack smart: get a takeaway or cold snack if you are planning a big night out.

Turn off: …cooking appliances, hair straighteners, mobile phone chargers

Unclog your sockets: overloading electrical sockets can be a common source for fires.

Dry safely: Covering lamps or heaters with clothes or fabrics is a major fire risk.

Escape route: be aware of where the fire exits are.

No naked flames: Remember to put out cigarettes properly, take care using candles

Test your smoke detector: test your smoke detector regularly.

Fire risk management in ageing populations

A recent update from Statistics New Zealand shows that our population is getting older:  the 65+ age group has nearly doubled since 1981.

This demographic change has a flow-on effect on the types of dwellings and residences that people choose. Statistics NZ data shows that 32,000 older NZers now live in residential care.

What are the implications of these changes, for fire risk management?

NZ Fire Service recently commissioned research surveying older people’s knowledge, attitudes and behaviour towards home security and fire risk management. This research, published in 2015, can be viewed here.

Other countries with ageing populations are also looking into this issue:

This February 2015 article looks at trends in Japan in the dwelling types of elderly people and the risk of death due to fire in these settings.  The author points out that,

“In Japan, approximately 1,400 people die annually in fires (excluding suicide by fire). The ratio of people aged 65 years or older accounts for approximately 60% of these fire fatalities.”

He notes the rise in the number of nursing homes for the elderly and states:

“Even with some improvements to fire safety equipment in these facilities, there remains the problem of how to provide fire safety for elderly people who may find evacuation difficult.”

This detailed and technical article looks at the Canadian elderly residential care situation. These authors also point out the difficulties of evacuation in these settings and argue in favour of retro-fitting sprinklers. They provide a case study of such a project.

False alarms at student halls drop by 80% – Glasgow

Scottish Fire and Rescue Service have partnered with Glasgow University to drastically reduce false alarm call outs to student halls of residents.  The key has been engaging with students with fire safety education and the use of new “smart detector” alarms in the halls of residence.

​Glasgow partnership sees 80% drop in false alarms at student halls
Scottish Fire and Rescue – press release, 1 May

False fire alarm call-outs at Glasgow student halls drop by80%​
Glasgow Evening Times, 28 May

Scottish Fire and Rescue – Student Safety leaflet

IAFSS archive on Google Scholar

A Google scholar search will now pick up content from the International Association of Fire safety science publication archive.  Sources include:

Press release from IAFSS  (30 April).

NFPA Journal launches new podcast service

Are you a podcast addict? Find yourself listening in the car, while cooking dinner, brushing your teeth, doing chores?  You’ve probably got my ear buds in now.

Podcasts are a great way to be engaged and learning while taking care of some of life’s more mundane and mindless tasks.

NFPA podcasts will explore in greater depth some of the issues and topics covered in the NFPA Journal and bring them to you in audio form. Each month, they will pick an interesting article, column, or idea from Journal, and talk to the author or an expert, and dive deep into what the issues are, and what you should know— all in 20 minutes or less.

The first edition of NFPA Journal Podcast (released April 14) covers the concept of resiliency—which in recent years has become a huge buzzword in the emergency planning, security and business worlds.

NZFS personnel can read issues of NFPA Journal online via NZFS Library webpage on Firenet.