State, National Statistics Show Older Adults at Increased Risk of Fire Death

Wednesday, August 30, 2017 | 8:46am

NASHVILLE – Being prepared for a home fire is important at any age, but data clearly shows that it is particularly crucial for adults aged 65 and over. National and state statistics continue to indicate that this segment of the population faces significantly elevated risks for fire-related deaths. The Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Office (SFMO) urges older adults and their caregivers to take necessary steps to stay safe from fire dangers.

State fire data indicates that adults aged 65-years-old or older comprised 22 percent (25 fatalities) of the 113 residential fire deaths reported in Tennessee last year. The risk of dying in a home fire increases at the age of 50. At the age of 65, Tennesseans are twice as likely to be killed or injured by fire. Tennesseans aged 85 and up are four times as likely to be fire victims.

“The Department is committed to addressing issues facing vulnerable populations in Tennessee,” said State Fire Marshal and Commerce & Insurance Commissioner Julie Mix McPeak. “Tennesseans are encouraged to check in regularly with the older adults in your life to ensure they’re living in a fire-safe environment and that they have a home fire escape plan in place. We also remind state citizens that free smoke alarms and complimentary installations are available through our ‘Get Alarmed, Tennessee!’ program.”

According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a new NIST study shows scientifically for the first time that an individual’s ability to respond quickly to a residential fire determines who dies and who gets injured. Home fire deaths, the NIST researchers state, are more likely among those they define as frail populations—persons who are not in robust health and primarily age 65 and older—while nonfatal injuries occur more often in adults ages 20 to 49.

Older adults are at a greater risk of fire death because frailty/reduced mobility may slow their escape time and diminished hearing could make it difficult to detect the sound of the smoke alarm. In addition, some older adults may have hoarding tendencies. Collecting or keeping large amounts of items in the home can not only hinder a person from escaping a fire, but can deter first responders from being able to reach them in an emergency. In 2016 there were four fire fatalities in Tennessee in which hoarding was a contributing factor to the fire or to the spread of the fire according to state data.

To help the older adults in your life be prepared and protected from fire dangers, share these fire safety guidelines from the National Fire Protection Association:

Fire Safety Tips for Older Adults

  • Live with fire sprinklers: When looking for an apartment or high-rise home, look for one with an automatic sprinkler system. Sprinklers can extinguish a home fire in less time than it takes for the fire department to arrive.
  • Keep it low: If possible, consider sleeping in a room on the ground floor in order to make emergency escape easier.
  • Sound the alarm: Have working smoke alarms on every level of your home, including the basement. Install alarms in hallways leading to bedrooms and inside every bedroom. Ensure that you can hear the alarm by utilizing the test button. Test your smoke alarms regularly and replace the batteries once a year or consider alarms with long-life batteries. Smoke alarms that are 10 years old or older need to be replaced. If anyone in your household is deaf or if your own hearing is diminished, consider installing a smoke alarm that uses a flashing light or vibration to alert you to a fire emergency.
  • Do the drill: Have a home fire escape plan with two ways out of every room and a designated safe meeting place outside. Practice your plan regularly. If you or someone you live with cannot escape alone, designate a member of the household to assist.
  • Clear the way: Remove any items that may block your way out of the room or your home. Remember, your exit routes may change as new items are brought into the home.
  • Open up: Make sure that you are able to open all doors and windows in your home. If you have security bars on doors or windows, they should have emergency release devices inside so that they can be opened easily.
  • Stay connected: Keep a telephone near your bed, along with emergency phone numbers, so that you can communicate with emergency personnel if you're trapped in your room by fire or smoke. Have glasses, hearing aids, wheelchairs, or canes nearby if applicable. 
  • Cook with care: Wear short, close-fitting or tightly rolled sleeves when cooking. Don’t leave cooking unattended on the stove. Use a timer to remind you of food in the oven. Check to see that the oven and stovetop are off before going to bed each night. Never use the oven to heat your home.
  • Give space heaters space: Keep space heaters three feet from anything that can burn, including furniture, blankets, pets, and yourself. Turn space heaters off when you leave the room and when you go to bed at night.
  • Eliminate careless smoking: Never smoke in bed or when drowsy. Refrain from smoking near an oxygen source, gas stove, or other flammable objects. Use deep, sturdy ashtrays and extinguish cigarette butts completely with water or sand before disposal.

For more information on how to make your home fire-safe, print the State Fire Marshal’s home fire safety checklist and escape grid. Tennesseans in need of a smoke alarm can also utilize the SFMO’s online alarm request form.

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