Fire safety

Gas hob

August 2012

Topic briefing

House fires are a significant cause of death in pre-school children with 23 children aged 16 and under dying from fire in 2010-11. This includes accidential and non-accidental fires. Pre-school children are at greatest risk, making up almost half of these fire deaths.

Key issues

There is a strong link between deaths and injuries from house fires and social deprivation with children from the poorest families 38 times more likely to die in a house fire than those in the most affluent families.

Although relative to other causes of accidental death in children, the numbers of children killed are low, the result can be devastating for the family and the community. Most fires (86%) are accidental1 and effective prevention programmes can significantly reduce the risk of serious injury and death to children.

Fire statistics: deaths

Whilst deaths from fire have halved since the 1980s there remains a steep socio-economic factor to children’s deaths from fires from poorer backgrounds. A child from the poorest background - whose parents have never worked or are long-term unemployed -  is 38 times more likely to die in a house fire than children from the most affluent background.

Children under five are at greatest risk, making up almost 50% of fire deaths among children aged 16 and under. The headline national fire statistics on deaths and injuries from fire are below and are taken from the national fire statistics on the Communities and Local Government (DCLG) website1 show that: there were 23 deaths from fires in 2010- 2011 for children aged 16 and under:

  • 5 deaths among under 1s
  • 6 deaths among 1-4 year olds
  • 12 deaths among 5-10 year olds
  • no deaths among 11-16 year olds.

Pre-school children may play with matches or lighters without understanding the danger that fire presents, are less likely to understand the significance of a smoke alarm, and may hide from fire, rather than understanding the need to escape as quickly as possible. So their parents and carers are a key target audience for fire safety messages.

The national fire statistics also show that the most common identified cause of death from a fire incident is being overcome by gas or smoke:

  • in 2010-11, fire and rescue services reported that 132 people died this way, accounting for 34% of all deaths.
  • a further 69 (18%) deaths were attributed jointly to both burns and being overcome by gas or smoke, whilst 95 (24%) were due to burns alone.

This is particularly important in terms of fire safety campaigns. Many house fires start at night. Parents may assume they will smell the smoke and wake up. In fact, the smoke generated in house fires often contains poisonous gases such as carbon monoxide, that swiftly render people unconscious. This is why working smoke alarms are so important – they give people vital minutes to get out before their home is filled with smoke.

Fire statistics: injuries

In 2010-11 there were 221 hospital admissions for children aged 0-14 for fire-related injuries. (2) The majority of these admissions (82%) are due to exposure to smoke from fires.(2).

Looking at non-fatal casualties for all ages from fires in 2010-11, national fire statistics show:

  • Approximately 26% of all non-fatal casualties were due to the effects of gas or smoke.
  • 12% of all non-fatal casualties were due to burns, including those suffering from both burns and overcome by gas or smoke.

Causes of fires

Families where someone smokes are at greatest risk with cigarettes, matches and lighters being the biggest single cause of fatal house fires. Yet smokers are less likely to own a smoke alarm than non-smokers.There is also a link with inequalities, as poorer parents are more likely to smoke.

National fire statistics1 provide the following information about people of all ages affected by house fires.

  • Smokers' materials, predominantly cigarettes, caused fires that accounted for over a third of deaths in accidental house fires in 2010-11.(96 out of 268 deaths).
  • There were no smoke alarms in 37% of the 306 house fires fatalities in Great Britain in 2010-11. A further 76 deaths (25%) were in the fires where a smoke alarm was present but did not operate.
  •  The proportion of households with a working smoke alarm increased rapidly from 8% in 1988 to 70% in 1994 and has continued to rise in recent years to 86% in 2008.
  • 51% of accidental fires in homes arose from cooking. Other common sources of ignition were: electrical appliances (12%), electrical distribution (10%), smokers' materials (7%), and space heating appliances (4%).

There is much scope therefore to promote fire safety messages by integrating these with existing smoking cessation campaigns or smoke alarm testing initiatives in your local area.

Costs of fire injuries

The average cost of a domestic fire was estimated at £24,900 in 2004, of which approximately £14,600 was accounted for by the economic cost of injuries and fatalities and £7,300 was due to property damage.3

Policy arena

The Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 includes a provision that local fire and rescue services have a duty to promote fire prevention in their area. The act also ensures that fire and rescue services have a duty to work in partnership with other agencies to ensure that prevention programmes are delivered effectively. The guidance on the act specifically mentions the delivery of fire safety education.

The vision for the Public Health Outcomes Framework is to improve and protect the nation’s health and wellbeing, and to improve the health of the poorest fastest. The second of the two outcomes in the framework is reduced differences in life expectancy and healthy life expectancy between communities, through greater improvements in more disadvantaged communities. Given the link between childhood fire deaths from fires to children and deprivation, this a key outcome for the prevention of fire-related deaths.

The Public Health Outcomes Framework notes that injuries disproportionately affect children from lower socio-economic groups. It includes an all ages indicator for mortality from causes considered to be preventable.

The Public Health Outcomes Framework draws heavily on Fair Society, Healthy Lives: The Marmot Review of Health Inequalities in England post 2010. The Marmot Review proposes six policy objectives. The first policy objective is: “Give every child the best start in life”. The Review notes: “Giving every child the best start in life is crucial to reducing health inequalities across the life course”. This is important, given the over-representation of under fives in fire deaths and the links with disadvantage.

The NICE public health guidance on preventing unintentional injuries among under-15s contains recommendations for local authorities on the installation and maintenance of permanent safety equipment in social and rented dwellings. The safety equipment includes battery-operated smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms.

Prevention programmes

A range of prevention programmes are available to prevent injuries and deaths from house fires. The fire and rescue service, working with partners deliver the following effective programmes.

  • The correct fitting and maintenance of smoke alarms: many fire and rescue services offer free smoke alarm fitting for vulnerable families. Families need a smoke alarm on every level of their home, upstairs and downstairs. Smoke alarms should be tested once a week to make sure they are working properly.
  • Home safety awareness: storing matches and lighters away from children, fitting fireguards to all fires and heaters, using a spark guard for a coal or wood fire.
  • The development and practising by families of fire escape plans: so that they know what to do if a fire breaks out in their home.
  • Home safety visits: members of the local fire and rescue service may be able to make a ‘home fire risk assessment’ visit to people’s homes. The home visit focuses on three areas:
    1. identification and awareness of the potential fire risks within the home eg electrical safety, smoking safety and the use of electric blankets
    2. knowledge of what to do to reduce or prevent these risks eg overloaded electrical sockets, wires trapped under carpets, ensuring that doors shut correctly
    3. putting together an escape plan in case a fire does break out.

The national Fire Kills initiative also provides fire safety advice and has run fire safety advertising campaigns.

Partnership working

Much effective fire safety work is carried out in partnership with a number of local agencies. Whether it’s through children’s centres delivering key messages on smoke alarm testing or work with schools to integrate fire safety into cooking lessons, there are lots of opportunities to promote fire safety through successful partnership programmes.

The NICE guidance recommends focussing on the following families:

  • households with children under 5
  • families living in rented or overcrowded conditions
  • families living on a low income
  • families who lack properly installed safety equipment
  • households identified through the Housing Health and Safety Ratings System as living in non-decent properties where hazards have been identified.

In addition to the fire and rescue service, key organisations that can play a role in promoting fire safety include:

  • community and voluntary organisations
  • road safety professionals
  • children’s centres
  • schools
  • interactive safety centres and 'Crucial Crew' safety education sessions
  • NHS stop smoking teams
  • housing associations and local authority housing departments
  • environmental health.

How Making the Link can help you

Making the Link is here to support people with a role to play in child accident prevention throughout England. We recognise that effective child accident prevention programmes and strategies happen through successful partnership working.

We’d like to hear about the work you’re doing in your area and any things that have worked well which we can share with other professionals on the Making the Link site.

Email us at info@makingthelink.net to:

  • submit case studies about your child accident prevention work.
  • suggest ideas for Making the Link resources that would help you in work
  • find out more about the project or any other information on the website.

Explore the Making the Link website to :

Stay up to date with Making the Link

Useful links

Making the Link site links

CAPT links

External links

  • Direct Gov
    Houses all the information from the government on fire safety.
  • Cheshire Fire and Rescue
    An example of the partners fire and rescue services work with in delivering fire safety programmes.
  • Fire statistics
    The latest national fire statistics from DCLG.
  • DCLG fire and rescue information
    Policy guidance for the fire and rescue service on community safety and research and evaluation on fire prevention programmes.
  • Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA)
    National contacts and information on the fire and rescue services' children and young people’s strategy.
  • Fire and Rescue service
    Information for the public on DirectGov on the role of the fire and rescue service.
  • Crucial Crew
    Fire and rescue staff walk children through a fire safety scenario to help them learn about the hazards of fire.

Download this topic briefing as a PDF

Notes for this feature

  1. Fire Statistics Great Britain 2010-2011: Department for Communities and Local Government
  2. Hospital episode statistics 2010-11: Hesonline. The breakdown of admissions for 0-14 due to fire and smoke-related injuries are as follows:
    • X00: Exposure to uncontrolled fire in building or structure: 33
    • X01: Exposure to uncontrolled fire: 6
    • X08: Exposure to other specified smoke: 76
    • X09: Exposure to unspecified smoke: 106
  3. The Economic Cost of Fires: estimates for 2004, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 2006
Updated December 2013