Fire Risks for Older Adults
Older adults represent one of the highest fire risk populations in the
United States. The facts speak for themselves: Americans over the age of
65 are one of the groups at greatest risk of dying in a fire. Every year
over 1,200 Americans over age 65 die in fires. People over the age of 80
die in fires at a rate three times higher than the rest of the population.
As a result of progressive degeneration in physical, cognitive, and
emotional capabilities, older adults present unique challenges in the fields
of fire protection, prevention, and safety. Complications associated with
aging increase the likelihood that an elderly person will accidentally
start a fire and at the same time reduce his or her chances of surviving
it. As the nation's elderly population grows, the fire death toll will
likely rise in direct proportion to that growth unless measures are taken
to ameliorate the risks associated with this group. The fire safety community
must address the fire safety needs of older adults or be faced with the
potential for a severe public health problem.
There are a number of precautionary steps older Americans can take to
dramatically reduce their chances of becoming a fire casualty.
The Fire Problem and Older Adults
What Fire Hazards Affect Older People?
People over the age of 65 are the fastest growing segment of the American
Over 1,200 Americans over the age of 65 die as a result of a fire each
year. Older adults comprise over 25 percent of fire deaths of all ages,
and 30 percent of fire deaths that occur in the home.
Fires and burns are a leading cause of deaths from unintentional injuries
among older adults.
Residential fires injure an average of 3,000 older adults each year.
Fires caused by smoking are the leading cause of fire deaths in the elderly.
Fires caused by cooking are the leading cause of fire-related injuries
in the elderly.
Elderly fire victims usually come in close contact with the heat source
that starts the fire.
Adults in the age group between 65 and 75 have a fire death rate twice
that of the national average; between 75 and 85, three times the national
average; and over 85, four times the national average.
Cooking accidents are the leading cause of fire related injuries for older
Americans. The kitchen is one of the most active and potentially dangerous
rooms in the home.
The unsafe use of smoking materials is the leading cause of fire deaths
among older Americans.
Heating equipment is responsible for a big share of fires in seniors' homes.
Extra caution should be used with alternate heaters such as wood stoves
or electric space heaters.
Faulty wiring is another major cause of fires affecting the elderly.
Older homes can have serious wiring problems, ranging from old appliances
with bad wiring to overloaded sockets.
Safety Tips for Older Americans
The aging process, with its associated illnesses and impairments, leaves
a person vulnerable to a variety of accidental injuries, including fires
The likelihood of experiencing a severe disability increases with age.
Impairments associated with the aging process, such as blindness or deafness,
predispose the elderly to accidental injuries, including fires.
Approximately 30 percent of noninstitutionalized older adults live alone,
placing them at higher risk for accidental injury.
Many older people live alone and when accidents happen others may not be
around to help.
Group assisted-living facilities and nursing homes pose unique fire risks
to both their residents and firefighters.
Nearly 20 percent of older adults live at or below the poverty line, and
the relationship between poverty and fires is a compounding fire risk.
Many older adults take multiple medications, the interaction of which can
cause a variety of side effects, including confusion, that may alter the
decision-making process and increase the potential for accidents.
The impairments caused by the combination of alcohol and prescription drugs
in older adults can be significant. Such impairments may lead to an increased
likelihood of accidentally starting a fire, not detecting a fire, and not
being able to escape a fire.
Older adults may be less able to take the quick action necessary in a fire
Finally, having a working smoke alarm dramatically increases your chances
of surviving a fire. And remember to practice a home escape plan frequently
with your family.
Kitchen Fires. Most kitchen fires occur because food is left
unattended on the stove or in the oven. If you must leave the kitchen while
cooking, take a spoon or potholder with you to remind you to return to
the kitchen. Never cook with loose, dangling sleeves that can ignite easily.
Heat cooking oils gradually and use extra caution when deep-frying. If
a fire breaks out in a pan, put a lid on the pan. Never throw water on
a grease fire. Never use a range or stove to heat your home.
Space Heaters. Buy only Underwriter's Laboratory (UL) approved
heaters. Use only the manufacturer's recommended fuel for each heater.
Do not use electric space heaters in the bathroom or around other wet areas.
Do not dry or store objects on top of your heater. Keep combustibles away
from heat sources.
Smoking. Don't leave smoking materials unattended. Use "safety
ashtrays" with wide lips. Empty all ashtrays into the toilet or a metal
container every night before going to bed. Never smoke in bed.