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FPE Extra Issue 12, December 2016

Preventing Fatal Fires Involving Vulnerable People

By: Karolina Storesund and Anne Steen-Hansen

SP Fire Research has conducted a study for the Norwegian authorities aimed at finding targeted technical and organisational measures that can be implemented in order to avoid fire fatalities among so-called vulnerable groups. Individuals that may be categorized in different ways as vulnerable are overrepresented in the fire fatality statistics in Norway and internationally. In fact, almost 80 % of the fire fatalities had characteristics that would make them vulnerable to a fire situation. Most victims die alone in their own homes. Although our study has mainly been concerned with the nature of the Norwegian society, we are convinced that our findings are universal, and believe that results from this work also can become useful outside Norway.


Approximately 1/3 of the fire fatalities in Norway were 70 years or older. Elderly people with reduced cognitive and/or physical abilities are considered the largest group at risk today, with the emphasis on reduced cognitive and/or physical abilities. Our message is that it is the risk factors and the conditions of the individual that we must focus on. Old age in itself is not increasing the risk of dying from a fire, but there are a number of challenges that may arise with increasing age. These challenges affect the probability of fire and the seriousness of its consequences.

The fire statistics, along with information from police reports, tell us a little bit about the people who became victims of fatal fires in Norway. This knowledge can help us to find efficient and targeted measures that can prevent future fire fatalities, beyond what can be achieved through measures directed at the general public.It is evident that the key to successful fire prevention among vulnerable groups is cooperation between the fire service and other public and private parties in the municipalities. The understanding of groups at risk includes both the physical environment and the social and organisational environment, in addition to the needs of the individual. For this reason the implementation of organisational and technical measures must be seen in relation to one another.

The Individual's Environment Affects Fire Safety

The traditional, predefined categories of risk groups do not necessarily align with the ongoing fire preventive work because they do not capture the variations in the existing services nor the varying needs of the individuals. The model in Figure 1 describes vulnerable groups, and it considers how vulnerability is a result of the interaction between the physical environment (e.g., housing stock, residential environment and fire prevention measures), the social and organisational environment (public services, voluntary sector, social network, etc.) and the individual with specific needs, challenges and capabilities.

Figure 1: Circumstances that Influence the Risk of Fatal Dwelling Fires

There may be large variations with regards to area size, population density and in the composition of the population, which will affect how society is organised for dealing with different types of vulnerability for fatal fires.

The quality of the housing stock may also vary greatly, with factors such as construction materials used (e.g. occurrence of older wooden houses, sometimes densely built, which is an important part of the Norwegian cultural heritage), the degree of integration of fire safety equipment, density of old buildings with challenging evacuation routes, and having a varying degree of fire protection.

In addition there are great variations in the different forms of cooperation between different types of municipal services (health, housing, technical aid distribution), that can affect how fire risk of individuals is dealt with.

Risk Factors Rather than Risk Groups

In this context, vulnerability is described as a reduced ability to; 

  • avoid a fire risk situation
  • identify a fire outbreak, warn about and extinguish a starting fire
  • escape from fire without assistance 

Some groups of the population are more exposed than others and vulnerability will be a result in several interacting factors, including:

  • reduced physical functions (e.g. visual impairment, hearing impairment, reduced mobility)
  • reduced cognitive functions (e.g. the use of drugs and alcohol, psychiatric and other cognitive challenges)
  • socio-economic status (e.g. living alone, poverty, low education level)  

Different disabilities come in varying degrees and not all people with a disability will have the same challenges or the same severity of challenges. It is also important to remember that one individual may experience a combination of several risk factors. When it comes to elderly people, it is not age or ageing that are defined as risk factors, but with age one may experience several different physical and cognitive challenges. Reaction, mobility and speed can be reduced, which will be challenging during a fire. Many elderly are also living alone, which could have a major impact on the outcome of a fire.

For example, the elderly face physical challenges that may affect their abilities to react to a fire. In case of a fire they will have difficulties trying to extinguish the fire, they will evacuate slower, and may not be able to keep their head below the smoke layer. Considering their cognitive abilities we might find they are forgetful; maybe forgets the food cooking on the stove is causing a kitchen fire. That is, these cognitive abilities may influence the probability of a fire starting nearby.

But they are also affected by the surroundings; the state of the house they live-in (evacuation routes etc.), the people or staff around that can affect their safety and in what degree safety measures around them are targeting specific challenges.

Targeted Technical Measures

Having identified the fire safety challenges with an individual, it is important to select suitable measures to target these specific challenges. Changing attitudes, raising the awareness and teaching fire safety are all important measures in all of these situations. However, there are some technical measures that may be implemented and may target different needs. These include:

  • Stove guards
  • Cigarettes and smoking
  • Fire protection of electronic equipment
  • Fire safe furnishing
  • Measures aimed at reducing the risk from open flame
  • Detection and alarms
  • Automatic extinguishing systems

Concluding Remarks

The prevention of fatal fires for vulnerable groups of people is an issue that requires attention and cooperation from several public sectors as well as cooperation between different branches of science.

The physical, social and organisational surroundings of the individual must be recognized, rather than just their belonging to a certain vulnerable group. Two persons with the same challenges may experience very different degrees of vulnerability with regards to fire risk, depending on how their social and physical environment is organised. On an organisational level it is important to strengthen the cooperation between different service providers (fire service, health service, etc.) and take into consideration the existing local structures. Municipal health and social services are crucial to ensuring efficient and targeted fire prevention work, as are the organizations that own and manage housing for vulnerable groups. Technical measures should be implemented with the individual in mind.

New products and solutions for fire prevention are continuously being developed and made available on the market. Not all technical solutions are clearly defined with respect to performance requirements, properly documented or certified. However, clear and defined requirements for function and documentation will strengthen the availability and the quality of fire preventive technical solutions and thereby help improving the fire safety for people that experience an increased fire risk.

Karolina Storesund and Anne Steen-Hansen are with SP Fire Research AS, Trondheim, Norway

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