Fact Sheet
In the United States, 1,946 children (0-18) died in fires in 2000. Young children, especially males ages 0-4, are at the greatest risk. Children of this age are less likely to recognize the dangers of playing with fire, more likely to hide once a fire breaks out and less likely to have been taught home fire escape. Poverty increases this risk. This is due in part to lower income families being more likely to live in older, wood frame housing; less likely to have working smoke alarms; less likely to have a family escape plan and to practice it; more likely to use alternative heating sources; more likely to have malfunctioning wiring or appliances and more likely to have barriers to escape or rescue. The latter includes having children’s bedrooms in basements with small or no access windows, security bars on windows and back doors or windows nailed shut for security or warmth.

A significant portion of the fires that result in child fatalities are started by children in the home playing with incendiary devices such as matches and lighters. Since the CPSC took action in 1994 to require that cigarette lighters be child-resistant, deaths caused by children playing with lighters has decreased by 43%.

Whereas deaths from residential fires in general have been cut dramatically in the last 20 years, fatal fires caused by candles have increased by 750% between 1980 and 1998. The CPSC has recalled several candles and candle-related products since 1994, and is currently working with the candle industry to develop safety standards to help reduce fires caused by candles. The CPSC has also been working in recent years on standard proposals for upholstered furniture in residences, which contain highly flammable polyurethane foam that catches fire easily and spreads quickly, causing large amounts of noxious fumes and intense heat, thereby increasing the risk of fire fatality, especially multiple fatalities.

The single most important factor in reducing child fire fatalities is the presence in the home of a working smoke detector. Three-fifths of fire fatalities occur in the small percentage of homes (7%) that lack any detectors at all. Although most American homes have at least one smoke alarm in the home, the detectors may not contain good batteries or be in working order. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends monthly testing, yearly battery replacement and replacing entire alarms after 10 years. Detectors with lithium batteries that last 10 years, hard-wired smoke alarm systems and residential sprinklers can dramatically reduce the risk of dying in a fire. Learning the basics of home fire escape is another proven way to reduce fire fatality risk. Research shows that children, including preschoolers, are capable of learning life-saving means of home fire escape. In August of 2001, the NFPA was awarded a federal grant to train fire service representatives from 200 communities throughout the U.S. in the implementation of Risk Watch, NFPA’s successful child injury prevention curriculum, in local schools. A large part of this curriculum deals with fire safety, including age-appropriate lessons on home fire escape for pre-school children through age eight.
Major Risk Factors
  • Child’s ability to gain access to lighters, matches or other incendiary devices.
  • Homes without working smoke detectors.
  • Children under age five.
  • Black and American Indian males.
  • Children from low income families.
  • Quality of supervision at time of death.
  • Drug or alcohol use by supervising adults.
  • Members of household falling asleep while smoking or leaving candles burning.
  • Victim’s exposure to fire safety education.
  • Lack of a fire escape plan.
  • Use of alternative heating sources, substandard appliances or outdated wiring.
  • Failure of property to maintain code requirements.
  • Timeliness of fire rescue response.
Records Needed for Case Review
  • Autopsy reports
  • Scene investigation reports and photos
  • Fire marshal reports that include source of fire and presence of detectors
  • EMS run reports
  • Emergency Department reports
  • Information on zoning or code inspections and violations
  • Prior CPS history on child, caregivers and persons supervising child at time of death
  • Names, ages and genders of other children in home
  • Criminal background checks on persons supervising child at time of death
  • Reports of home visits from public health or other services
  • Any information on prior deaths of children in family

  • Smoke detector distribution programs that are targeted in low-income neighborhoods, providing non-removable, lithium batteries.
  • Legislation requiring installation of detectors in new and existing housing, especially when combined with multifaceted community education and detector give aways.
  • Risk Watch or similar programs in schools, preschools and daycare settings to teach fire safety and home fire escape.
  • Utilization of mobile “Smoke Houses” by fire departments to teach children how fires start, how fast they can spread, and how best to escape a burning house.
  • Codes requiring hard-wired detectors in new housing stock.
  • Passage and enforcement of local ordinances regarding the inspection of rental units for fire safety, especially for the presence of working smoke detectors.