RAPIDLY AGING SOCIETY AND ITS IMPACT ON FIRE RISKS
is continuing to experience an aging population with trends toward a
declining total population and a rising percentage of adults aged 65
years or older as seen in Figure 1. When Japan's "baby boom generation"
(those born between 1947 and 1949) exceed 65 years of age in 2015, the
elderly population will be 34.0 million. The population aged 65 or older
is expected to continue growing over the next 20 years, and it is
expected to reach 33.4% of the total population by 2035. This increase
will create a super-aged society in which one in three people are 65
years or older.
Figure 1: Total Population and the Ratio of Aged, 65 or Older in Japan1,2
An aging population is in many ways a positive social phenomenon. There are many countries with high fertility and average life expectancy in the 40s and 50s. Although the proportion of the aged population in these countries is naturally low, many of these countries do not have a high standard of living. An aging population is one facet of the so-called long-life society. A large elderly population can be viewed as evidence not only of the enhancement of the Japanese national health care system, but also that Japan has achieved an extremely peaceful and economically stable society for 70 years in the post-war period. This phenomenon should not be viewed negatively, but it is something to be proud of. Japanese people should consider this a challenging problem to which they can take the lead in finding a solution. Doing so is one of the responsibilities of a peaceful and mature country.
is not possible to immediately resolve all problems related to an aging
population; yet it is necessary to, for example, improve frameworks and
systems for employing elderly people who are willing and able to work
and promoting their participation in society.
challenges caused by an aging population are found in all aspects of
society, including health and medicine, lifestyle and housing, family
and community relationships, the economy, and fire safety. In Japan,
approximately 1,400 people die annually in fires (excluding suicide by
fire). The ratio of people aged 65 years or older accounts for
approximately 60% of these fire fatalities.
2 compares the risk of fire death between age groups, showing the
number of deaths per 100,000 population due to fires. It is clear that
the risk increases suddenly in the elderly age range, with the value for
the group aged 76 and over particularly high. In contrast, the value is
uniformly low for people aged 55 years or younger, with very few deaths
of people aged 35 years or younger. Even though the state of a fire may
change rapidly, in contrast to motor vehicle collisions, fires do not
occur in a single instant. Differences in physical capabilities in terms
of ability to respond to danger after a fire is discovered, and the
ability to evacuate in particular, are thought to have a large effect on
Figure 2: Ratio of Per Capita Fire Deaths by Age Group in Japan for 20103
In any case, when one considers further aging of Japanese society, there is little doubt that the number of deaths due to fires will rise in the future. In addition, a new problem has recently arisen: a proliferation of halfway nursing homes in poor condition in terms of fire safety. The proliferation in these halfway nursing homes occurred in order to accommodate the increasing number of aged people requiring nursing care. Even with some improvements to fire safety equipment in these facilities, there remains the problem of how to provide fire safety for elderly people who may find evacuation difficult.
this background, the author analyzed trends in the residences of
elderly people and the risk of death due to fire by using fire incident
report data4 created by fire departments and various social statistical
data,5,6,7,8,9 that include elements related to fires. The
remainder of this article explores how the residential environment
affects the risk of death due to fire and what kinds of highly effective
fire prevention measures exist.
FIRE RISK BY TYPE OF FACILITY AND RESIDENCE FOR ELDERLY PEOPLE
3 shows the number of injuries and deaths due to fire per million
people by type of residence. The results for wooden apartments are
particularly high. Next highest are residences such as wooden detached
houses and non-wooden apartments, whereas the rates of fatalities and
injuries were relatively low in welfare and medical facilities.
Figure 3: The Average Annual Rates of Fire Fatalities and Fire Injuries Per Million People During 2004-2008
The likely reason is that, although hospitals and special care nursing homes have a high proportion of residents unable to evacuate by themselves, these facilities are equipped with fire protection equipment and have staff that can assist with evacuations.
general residences are less subject to regulations, they are not
equipped with fire protection equipment and don't have staff available
to assist in emergencies. This makes it easier for fires to occur and
for elderly people to have difficulty evacuating from a fire. As such,
the rates of injuries and deaths due to fire are higher in individual
housing, particularly wooden apartment housing.
welfare and medical facilities, group homes for elderly people with
dementia exhibited the highest numbers of deaths due to fire. This is
likely because such homes include facilities that have been transferred
from a residence, and because the fire safety measures are not as
extensive as in hospitals or special care nursing homes.
4 similarly shows the fire risk by type of facility and residence. It
also shows the number of deaths and number of serious injuries per
occurrence of fire. There are no large differences in the number of
deaths or serious injuries per fire between welfare facilities, medical
facilities, and each type of residence, with the exception of group
homes. The number of deaths and injuries per fire is clearly high in
group homes, with an average of 0.75 serious injuries and 0.58 deaths
occurring per fire.
Figure 4: The Annual Average Rates of Fire Fatalities and Fire Injuries Per Incident During 2004-2008
By any definition, this is an extremely high risk. Under Japanese national standards, group homes are required to have only one staff member at night per nine residents with dementia. If a fire occurs at night, it is essentially impossible for a single staff member to simultaneously perform initial firefighting, call the fire department, and evacuate nine elderly people with dementia in a short period of time. The above results are evidence of the magnitude of the potential fire risk due to insufficient nursing staff at night in small welfare facilities.
such a facility, where mobility-impaired people are in the majority and
where there are very limited staff, it is not possible to rely on staff
to save these occupants during a fire emergency. There may be no
solution other than providing a sprinkler system that can automatically
control the fire. In fact, after experiencing several fatal fires in
group homes, the Japanese Fire Service Law was revised in 2007 to
require the installation of sprinkler systems in all group homes and
similar small nursing care homes greater than 275 m2 where more than half of the occupants need assistance to evacuate.
ANNUAL TRENDS IN THE RISK OF DEATH BY FIRE BY AGE GROUP
author investigated trends over 30 years (1979 to 2009) in the risk of
death due to structure fire (number of structure fire deaths occurring
per 100,000 population) by age group.
looking at trends in the absolute number of deaths by structure fires
in Figure 5, large differences appear in the increases or decreases by
age group, reflecting changes in the population age composition over the
past 30 years. For example, the number of deaths among the elderly
greatly increased over these 30 years. The "75 years or older" group
doubled (105% increase). In contrast, the "6-64 years" group remained
level, and the "5 years or younger" group greatly decreased to
approximately one-fifth (an 82% decrease). These trends reflect the
declining birthrate and aging population of Japan.
Figure 5: Trend of the Number of Structure Fire Deaths by Age Group
(1995-2009: Excluding Incendiary Suicides)
In contrast, Figure 6 shows trends in the number of deaths due to fire per 100,000 population for various age groups. While the fire death rate in the "6-64 years" group remained flat over this period at 0.5, the death rate for the "65-74 years" group decreased from 2.79 to 1.57 (a 44% reduction), and the death rate for the "75 and older" group decreased from 6.82 to 3.59 (a 47% reduction), virtually halving in each case. The biggest reduction was in the "5 years or younger" group, with the number of deaths decreasing by 71% from 1.55 to 0.45. In summary, the death rate due to fire per population greatly decreased over the past 30 years, not only among the child group, but also among the elderly groups.
Figure 6: Trend of Fire Death Rate Per 100,000 Population by Age
Group (1995-2009: Excluding Incendiary Suicides)
The significant reduction in the death rate among the "5 or younger" group can be attributed to the fact that children less frequently play with fire. The decreasing trend in death rates among the elderly has continued uniformly from the 1980s to today, and is thus not due to the recent increase in use of residential smoke detectors. Furthermore, since no particular fire safety measures were mandated in homes during this period, it cannot be the effect of other fire safety measures. Several factors are conceivable as causing the decreasing trend among elderly people. One such factor may be the improved health of elderly people in general, particularly those who recently entered the elderly age group who are beneficiaries of more widespread medical treatment and a focus on health in recent years. Another possible reason is improvements in social care and in the residential environments of elderly people.
Although there has
been an increasing absolute number of fire deaths in elderly people to
some extent, which is attributed to the rapid increase in the population
of aged people, the number of deaths due to fire as predicted by that
demographic shift is not increasing proportionally. Looking at the
elderly age group in particular, the number of fire deaths per
population over the past 30 years has greatly decreased, and the fire
safety level has consistently improved. It is important to analyze
trends in the number of deaths due to disasters using risk indicators
such as the number of deaths per population in combination with other
relevant factors such as age and type of facility. This allows searching
for factors that underlie death risks, investigating ways to reduce the
number of deaths, and creating the possibility of measures for reducing
FLEXIBLE IDEAS FOR FIRE SAFETY MEASURES
author would like to discuss the balance between fire safety and the
quality of life of elderly people. Physical fitness and mobility
inevitably deteriorate as people age, and it becomes easier to be
injured during any kind of accident, not only a fire. As the population
continues to age, it is natural that the trend of increasing numbers of
deaths will continue as far as the population of elderly people
increases. The problem may be influenced by factors such as
deterioration of mutual assistance from family members and communities,
as the low birth rate, aging population, and trend away from
multi-generational households continue. However, the risk of death due
to fire among elderly people is decreasing, according to the trend in
recent years in Japan, as shown in Figure 6.
the improved health of elderly people is one important explanation, it
is not the only one to explain the above fact. The increased safety of
appliances for cooking and heating, and the increased safety and quality
of housing environments certainly has had an effect.
majority of fires that occur in residential homes are related to human
error, such as forgetting to turn off or incorrectly using an appliance.
Solely relying on people being cautious has limits for preventing the
occurrence of careless accidents, and it is impossible to expect that
they can be completely prevented. By contrast, if one develops safe
appliances, where careless errors do not result in fires, or makes
further advances in measures for preventing the outbreak of fires so
that people simply do not encounter fires, then the number of deaths due
to fire naturally decreases along with the number of fires.
the development of fire-safe appliances that are not affected by
attributes such as user age and physical fitness should be prioritized
as an important measure for preventing fires. It also is important to
improve the health and living environment for elderly people. Reducing
fire risks, even a little, and thereby providing a safe and comfortable
life in residential homes in which the majority of elderly people live,
is something that everyone wants.
Ai Sekizawa is with Tokyo University of Science.
- National Institute of Population and Security Research (2015).
- Bureau of Statistics of Ministry of Home Affairs (2010).
- Fire and Disaster Management Agency, Japan, White Book on Fire Service in Japan, 2010 edition.
- Fire and Disaster Management Agency, Database of Fire Incident Report (2004-2008).
- Bureau of Statistics of Ministry of Home Affairs, Survey of Social Welfare Facility (2004-2008).
- Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, Survey of Patient (2004-2008).
- Bureau of Statistics of Ministry of Home Affairs, Survey of Housing and Land, 2008 edition.
- Ministry of Health, Survey of Demographic Statistics.
- Taichi Yamamura, Ai Sekizawa, Akihiro Notake, Atsushi Mammoto, Daisuke Oiwa, Study on Fire Risk of Aged Population in Consideration of Residential Facilities for the Elderly, Proceedings of the Annual Conference of Japan Association of Fire Science and Engineering, 2011.