Survey Finds Americans Typically Misjudge Fire Safety Risks

A nationwide survey conducted by the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) revealed that 70% of Americans feel safer from fire at home than in a commercial high rise building, and another 24% feel no difference in their safety.

“I understand how people would feel safer in an environment they control, but the opposite is actually true,” said SPFE Engineering Program Manager, Chris Jelenewicz. “Systems that are designed to protect people, property and the environment from fire are more common in high rise buildings.”

Federal government statistics confirm that in 2009 there were 356,200 residential fires resulting in 2,480 deaths and 12,600 injuries. In the same year, there were 89,200 fires in non-residential buildings resulting in 90 deaths and 1,500 injuries. High rise building fires make up a small fraction of these non-residential building fires loses.

With respect to fire, high rise buildings have unique risks. For example, fire department ladders cannot reach the upper floors of a high rise building and it takes more time for people to evacuate a high rise building during an emergency.

Because of these unique risks, fire protection engineers analyze how high rise buildings are used, how fires start, how fires grow, and how fire and smoke affect people. They use this information to design systems that control fires, alert people to danger and provide means for escape that make high rise buildings safer from fire.

The results of the 2011 survey are similar to the results from a 2007 survey, which indicated 65% of Americans felt safer at home and another 24% felt no difference. For those who feel uncomfortable in high rise buildings, Jelenewicz offers these fire safety tips.

  • Situational awareness is important – know and understand what is happening around you. There many cues that alert people to fire emergencies in a building. These cues can include being notified by the building’s fire alarm/emergency communication system, hearing other people in the building, seeing the fire, smelling smoke, hearing unusual noises, or hearing the fire department.
  • If you do think there is a fire in the building, immediately take actions to exit the building or find a safe area of refuge.
  • Always follow the directions that are given by the building’s emergency notification system and/or the building staff.
  • If you regularly occupy a high rise building, take steps to fully understand the building’s emergency plan and participate in evacuation drills.

In commemoration of Engineers Week, February 20-26, 2011, SFPE hopes to draw attention to fire safety and the important role fire protection engineers play in making our world safe from fire.

“Our goal is to educate the public about the risks from fire and help them understand they can feel at ease when inside a high-rise building,” added Jelenewicz.

The SPFE survey was conducted online within the U.S. January, 2011 among 1,000 adults. Respondents for this survey were selected via a systematic random sample from among those who have agreed to participate in Synovate Panel surveys. The Synovate online panel is composed of over 840,000 adults who have been recruited to regularly participate in Synovate’s online surveys. Data were weighted by age, race/ethnicity, sex, and education, to reflect population proportions. The complete survey is available here.

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