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Fire prevention: the lessons we can learn

The United States spends more on health than any other economically comparable country, yet sees a consistently mediocre return on this investment. This could be because the United States invests overwhelmingly in medicine and curative care, at the expense of the social, economic, and environmental determinants of health—factors like quality education and housing, the safety of our air and water, and the nutritional content of our food. A deeper investment in contextual factors like these can help create healthy societies and prevent disease before it occurs. However, in making the case for this investment, it is important to make clear that a shift towards stopping disease before it starts does not mean pulling resources away from doctors and hospitals—our first line of defense when disease strikes. We need only look at the history of fire prevention in the United States to see how prevention does not have to come at the expense of cure. The issue of fire prevention has been much in the news lately, in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire in the United Kingdom. Despite the occurrence of such tragedies, however, the history of fire prevention in the United States has largely been an encouraging story, and instructive for the prevention vs cure debate. Over the years, we have managed to dramatically reduce fires, while at the same time maintaining a robust investment in the women and men who put them out when they happen.

Firefighting has a long history, dating back to the Roman era. However, modern fire prevention is largely the result of two tragedies that occurred on 8 October 1871. That was the day that both the Great Chicago Fire and the Wisconsin Peshtigo Fire broke out. The Great Chicago Fire took the lives of over 300 people; left 100,000 homeless; destroyed over 17,400 structures; and burned through over 2,000 acres. The Peshtigo Fire—the worst forest fire in US history—destroyed 16 towns and claimed over 1,000 lives.   These blazes were so destructive that they changed attitudes towards fire safety in the United States. Not long after the Great Chicago Fire, the city began to mark the anniversary of the event with festivities. On the fire’s 40th anniversary, the Fire Marshals Association of North America chose to formalize the occasion, using the day to promote fire prevention education. Starting in the early 1920s, Fire Prevention Week has been marked annually on the Sunday through Saturday period during which 9 October falls. The week usually has a theme linked to fire prevention and emergency planning, such as having an emergency route worked out to escape in the event of fire. Fire Prevention Week would go on to become the longest running public health and safety observance on record. Calls for a prevention focus, with firefighters taking a leading role in these efforts, were also amplified in the media during the 1920s, further publicizing the call to stop fires before they start.

Figure 1. Home fires data from the National Fire Protection Association. Recreated by the author, used with permission.

Since then, fire prevention has become an important part of how we view fire safety in the United States and made a clear difference in the number of deaths and injuries caused by fires. In 1977, there were 723,500 home fires in this country, with 5,865 civilian deaths and 21,640 injuries. In 2015, those numbers had been cut to 365,500 home fires, with 2,650 civilian deaths and 11,075 injuries (Figure 1).

The success of prevention has not been limited to reducing home fires. Between 1980 and 2013, vehicle fires declined by 64 percent, and building fires declined by 54 percent. Prevention has also made a difference in cites, like New York City, where fire deaths reached their lowest number in a century last year, at 48 deaths. This represents a notable decline from New York’s 1970 peak of 310 deaths.

Why has prevention been so effective? Most fires are caused by correctable human error, or the absence of safety systems like smoke alarms and sprinklers. For this reason, preventive steps like fire education and installing smoke alarms can do much to create a safer environment. Simply adding smoke alarms, for example, can reduce the risk of dying in a reported home fire by half. Fire education can help to discourage unsafe behavior, and encourage individuals and families to develop a means of escape in the event of fire.

Critically, the success of these efforts has not come at the expense of the people and organizations who fight fires when prevention falls short. Quite the opposite— as we have reduced the number of fires, the number of firefighters has actually increased. Despite the fact that there are 50 percent fewer home fires than there were 30 years ago, there are about 50 percent more career firefighters; 237,750 in 1986 to 345,600 in 2015.

Matchstick House by Myriams-Fotos. CC0 Public domain via Pixabay.

The United States has also seen an increase in the number of fire departments consisting of career or mostly career firefighters, rising from 3,043 in 1986 to 4,544 in 2015. This represents an increase of 49.3 percent. This increase has roughly coincided with a rise in government expenditures on local fire protection. Adjusted for inflation, this spending increased by 170 percent between 1980 and 2014, rising from $16.4 billion to $44.2 billion.

The history of fire prevention in the United States demonstrates that the rise of prevention does not necessitate the decline of cure. Our investment in reducing fires by creating an environment where they are less likely to occur has clearly paid off, yet this success has not changed our commitment to maintaining a network of professional firefighters, ready to respond in case of emergency. Further, we have managed to integrate a prevention focus into the work of these professionals— local fire departments often play a leading role in promoting prevention—demonstrating that the priorities of prevention and cure are not mutually exclusive.

What is the takeaway here for health? In the United States, our investment in population health vs curative care does not come anywhere near the balance struck by our fire preparedness infrastructure. Rather, our investment is deeply lopsided in favor of cure. The argument for greater focus on population health is not a case against this investment, it is a case against this lopsidedness. It stresses that a world with fewer “fires”—less disease—is beneficial to us all, even as we wish to always have well-resourced professionals on hand who can put out fires when they happen, and cure disease when it strikes. Such a world would reflect the high value we place on health, as we pursue wellbeing using every tool at our disposal, with prevention and cure working together to create a safer, healthier society.

A version of this post was originally published on Fortune.

Featured image credit: Firefighter by shutterbean. CC0 Public domain via Pixabay.

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