In 2007, a study was conducted comparing fire frequency rates in the United States vs. other countries around the world. The results were surprising - the U.S. lagged behind the rest of the world in fire safety by a significant margin despite the development of fire codes, smoke alarms and other fire safety measures.
Are other countries simply better at fire safety? Are their building codes better than the U.S.?
While fire safety strategies, building codes and building construction methods in other parts of the world are stricter than in the U.S. (e.g., the Netherlands focus on compartmentalization and built-in fire resistance in the home; wood construction is forbidden in the cities in Austria), there is significant emphasis and respect for educating the public about fire safety, fire prevention and small fire extinguishment.(1) In counties such as Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Austria, public fire education begins in the home and as early as preschool with a defined educational curriculum that continues through primary school (elementary school) and even into secondary school (middle/high school), in some cases.
In many countries outside of the U.S., fire safety and prevention is culturally engrained to be a personal responsibility whereas in there is more emphasis in the U.S. on fire suppression rather than fire prevention and public education services.(2) This is primarily due to their longer history and experience living in dense populations and large-scale fires. Our Asian Pacific and European counterparts view fires as "preventable and a shameful occurrence", while the U.S. consider fires as unfortunate "accidents"(3). Insurance companies in many countries only allow residents to recoup a portion of their property losses(4), rather than insuring 100% of home values like in the U.S. In 2010, U.S. fire losses/fire insurance claim figures were more than 10 times greater than other countries.(5)
Fire safety education is only conducted once or twice a year by the fire department where children are only taught the very basics (how to exit a building when the fire alarm sounds, get low to the ground when there's smoke, touch the door first to see if it's hot before opening).
So, what can we do to lower the fire incidence rates in the U.S.?
While changing cultural behavior is not an easy road nor will occur overnight, there are some things that we can learn from our Asian ane European counterparts:
Increase public education on fire safety, as well as fire prevention by trained fire service members, beyond the typical required public service announcements (PSA).
Provide practical guidance and training on how to extinguish small fires with little to no injury to self.
Include fire safety and fire prevention as a regular part of the school curriculum.
Encourage high education levels and technical backgrounds of fire service members who can be utilized as technical consultants.
Provide more fire prevention training for fire service members, especially officers, so they can, in turn, train and educate the public and be advocates for fire prevention.
1 Schaenman, P. (July 1993). International Concepts in Fire Protection: New Ideas From Europe. pp2.
2 Federal Emergency Management Agency. (May 1997). Fire Death Rate Trends: An International Perspective. pp11.
5 The Geneva Association (April 2014). Bulletin World Fire Statistics. pp6.