Smoke and fire related incidents, deaths, injuries and property damage
This chapter examines data on smoke and fire related incidents, deaths,
injuries and property damage in Australia in comparison with some overseas
jurisdictions. It then considers current inconsistencies and gaps in Australian
data and ways in which this might be addressed.
In 2013–14, Australian fire agencies attended 101,867 fire related
incidents, of which 19,524 (19 per cent) involved structure fires.
By comparison, during the same period, the New Zealand Fire Service Commission (NZFSC)
attended 10,245 fire incidents, of which 5294 (50 per cent) were structure
From April 2013 to March 2014, there were 212,500 fires attended by Fire and Rescue
Services in Great Britain; 19 per cent of these were dwelling fires.
Of interest to the committee, Great Britain records statistics on the
status of smoke alarms at each fire incident. For example, in 2013–14 no smoke
alarm was present in 12,000 (31 per cent) of dwelling fires while a smoke alarm
was present but did not operate in 19 per cent of fires.
England has also seen an increase in smoke alarm ownership from 8 per cent in
1988 to 88 per cent in 2011.
Fire-related incidents in
Australian states and territories
It is difficult to locate statistics about fire-related incidents in
Australian states and territories, and even more challenging to find statistics
that can be compared in a meaningful way.
The following points provide a limited snapshot of fire-related
incidents in the states and territories:
In New South Wales (NSW) from 2010 to 2015 there were 23,766
Between 2009-10 and 2013-14 the number of structure fires attended by Fire and
Rescue NSW (FRNSW) dropped from 7495 to 6209.
Between 2002-03 and 2006-07, Queensland Fire and Rescue (QFR)
attended more than 2400 structural fire incidents each year, with those
incidents increasing by 9.7 per cent during that period.
In South Australia, between the 2007-2008 and 2013-2014 financial
years, there was an average of 1175.6 structure fires per year.
The Tasmanian Fire Service (TFS) attended 631 structural fires in
During 2014 there were 3000 house fires recorded in Victoria.
From 2014-15 the Western Australia Department of Fire and
Emergency Services (DFES) attended 60.27 accidental residential fires per
Smoke and fire-related deaths
In 1998, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) recorded that 70
people died of accidental fire or flame injuries in a house fire.
In 2013-2014, the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC)
recorded 98 'fire deaths'.
In New Zealand during 2013–14 there were ten 'avoidable residential
fatalities' equivalent to 0.22 per 100,000 head of population.
New Zealand has seen a significant reduction in deaths over the last five to
ten years, attributed largely to the 'provision of fire safety education'.
During 2013–14 there were 322 fire-related deaths in Great Britain (at a
fatality rate of 5.2 per million of population), 20 fewer than the year before.
Of the 322 fatalities, 258 were dwelling fire fatalities; 41 per cent of the
fire-related deaths were caused by gas, smoke or toxic fumes, 20 per cent were
the result of burns alone and another 20 per cent were caused by a combination
of burns and being overcome by gas or fumes.
Nearly 40 per cent of dwelling fire deaths in Great Britain occurred in
properties where no alarm was installed.
According to the Department of Communities and Local Government (UK),
throughout the 1990s and 2000s Great Britain has seen 'a clear downward trend'
in fire-related fatalities.
In 2014, there were 1,298,000 reported fires in the United States of
America (USA) resulting in approximately 3275 civilian deaths. Of these, 2745
deaths occurred in dwelling fires (2345 in the family home and 400 in apartment
Since 1977, the USA has seen a reduction in the total number of home fire
deaths and a gradual decline in the number of deaths per 1000 fires; however, over
recent years (2009 to 2014) the number of civilian fire deaths per year has
remained about the same.
The 2015 National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) report Fire loss
in the United States During 2014 argued that:
There are five major strategies for reducing the death toll
in home fires. First, more widespread public fire safety education is needed on
how to prevent fires and how to avoid serious injury or death if a fire occurs.
Information on the common causes of fatal home fires should be used in the
design of fire safety education messages. Second, homeowners or property
managers need to install and maintain smoke alarms and residents must develop
and practice escape plans. Third, wider use of residential sprinklers must be
aggressively pursued. Fourth, additional ways must be sought to make home
products safer from fire. The regulations requiring more child resistant lighters
are a good example, as are fire-safe cigarettes. And finally, the special fire
safety needs of high-risk groups, such as young children, older adults, the
poor, and people with disabilities need to be addressed.
Fire-related deaths in Australian
states and territories
As with data about fire-related incidents, data about smoke and
fire-related deaths in Australian states and territories can be disparate and
difficult to find. The following list outlines some statistics on smoke and
fire-related deaths in the states and territories:
In 2008 there were 25 fire fatalities in NSW,
with accidental fires contributing to 115 fatalities from 2010-15.
Between the 2007-2008 and 2013-2014 financial years the South
Australian Metropolitan Fire Service (SAMFS) recorded 62 fire fatalities.
There were three fire fatalities in Tasmania between 2010-11, and
none from 2012-14.
Based on hospital admission data, there were 103 fire related
fatalities between 2004 and 2015 in the Melbourne Metropolitan
53 of these were deemed to arise from preventable or accidental residential
fires and 26 occurred in homes where there was no smoke alarm or the smoke
alarm was disarmed.
Between January 2001 and December 2006 there were 33 fire related
deaths in Western Australia arising out of 30 fires.
According to AFAC, during 2013-2014 there were 4114 hospital admissions
due to fire-related injuries in Australia.
In Great Britain during 2013-14 there were 9,748 non-fatal casualties in
fires (a rate of 157 per million population), a reduction of 5 per cent from
the year before. The number of casualties in dwelling fires in 2013-14
constituted 80 per cent of total non-fatal casualties and was 'the lowest
figure recorded in more than a decade'.
In 2014, 15,775 civilians were injured in fires in the USA, a reduction
of 0.9 per cent from the previous year. Of the injuries incurred, the vast
majority (85 per cent) occurred in structure fires with 75 per cent of all
civilian injuries in 2014 occurring in home fires.
Fire-related injuries in Australian
states and territories
In NSW, 3311 injuries related to accidental fires were recorded between
2010 and 2015;
in South Australia, between 2007-2008 and 2013-2014 125 fire injuries were
There were 82 accidental fire injuries in Tasmania which required hospital
admission in 2011-12.
Fire-related property damage
There are some difficulties associated with quantifying property damage
arising from fire related incidents. Fires may not be reported and homes may
not be insured, in which case the property damage is not recorded for
However, some submitters did provide some estimates of the costs
associated with smoke and fire-related damage to property. The Victorian
Metropolitan Fire & Emergency Services Board (MFB) advised that in the past
10 years, an average of 2786 insurance claims have been made relating to
residential fires, with an average cost of $32,000 per building and in 2014 the
estimated value of insurance claims relating to smoke and fire damage was over
AFAC told the committee that household and commercial property insurance claims
in relation to fire incidents, not including major events, in the 2013-2014
totalled $702.9 million.
The TFS recorded that house fire insurance claims as a percentage of Tasmanian
housing stock varied from $43.1 million in 2012-13 and a low of $7.7
million in 2009-10, a differential which TFS said related to the number of
homes destroyed in the 2012-13 bushfire season.
The NZFSC is required by law to protect property and measures its
success in this area using the estimated dollar value of property damage. In
2013–14, fire damage to residential structures in New Zealand totalled NZD71.55
million and non-residential structures totalled NZD51.96 million; in both
instances, these figures were below their respective targets of NZD75 million
and NZD55 million per annum.
Statistics from the Association of British Insurers (ABI) in 2009
demonstrated that the cost of fire damage in Great Britain was at a record
level: during the first half of that year, insurers paid out £639 million—£3.6
million every day—for damage caused by fires.
The ABI's data also showed:
Between 2002 and 2008 the cost of the average fire claim for both
commercial and domestic fires doubled, to £21,000 and £8,000 respectively.
More open plan buildings, which allow more rapid spread of fire,
and the increase in out of town developments, where fires can go for longer
unnoticed, are among factors contributing to the doubling of fire costs since
The ABI identified 'a review of the case for making sprinklers mandatory
in all new buildings as one of 'two key steps needed to tackle spiralling fire
costs which, if unchecked, will increasingly put lives at risk, and damage the
The NFPA estimated that the 1,298,000 fires in the USA in 2014 resulted
in USD11.6 billion in direct property damage. Of that USD11.6 billion,
approximately USD7.0 billion was incurred for residential properties (USD5.8
billion from family homes and USD982 million from apartments). The cost of
direct property damage from fires in the USA has been declining, from USD13.8
billion in 2009.
Inconsistency and gaps in data
It is difficult to calculate the number of smoke and fire-related deaths
and injuries, and the cost of associated property damage caused by smoke and
fire in Australia. This is primarily due to inconsistency and gaps in the data
collected. Data currently available on smoke and fire-related injuries, deaths
and property damage is collected by a range of different organisations in the
states and territories. Some data is recorded by state and territory fire and
emergency services; other data is collected by other organisations such as
hospitals and insurance companies. These organisations may gather data for
different times periods, particular localities, and using their own parameters.
There is also, understandably, a paucity of data on unreported fires. As
FRNSW stated there are no statistics on fires which are unreported and
therefore unattended by the service, or which have been reported to another
data is not generally captured where people with a fire related injury do not
seek medical treatment,
or where property damage has been caused but the fire was unreported and the
owner was uninsured.
As AFAC highlighted with regard to fire-related injuries:
...[I]njury from smoke and fire in the residential setting is
not limited to burns or smoke inhalation. AFAC research indicates that the
majority of fire injuries are burns and/or smoke inhalation, however,
other (related) injuries include wounds and punctures, fractures, heart attacks,
strains and sprains which occur during a fire. Such related injuries also may
not be captured in the data...notwithstanding that the injuries have resulted in
hospitalisation or injury to a person as a result of a residential fire.
Inconsistency and gaps in data pose difficulties for authorities: as the
preceding paragraphs illustrate, it is difficult to compare statistics dealing
with residential fires because they are recorded in different jurisdictions in
different ways over varying periods of time. For some jurisdictions it is
extremely difficult to locate any statistics at all for smoke and fire related
incidents, deaths or injuries. The absence of complete, accurate and consistent
data in turn makes it difficult for authorities to determine the extent and
impact of residential fires, identify trends, and determine whether or not particular
intervention activities are warranted or effective. Indeed, Commissioner Greg
Mullins, President of AFAC explained one of the ways in which NSW uses data
about fire incidents to target its home fire safety visits:
We correlate our fire incident data with census
data—socioeconomic status. We find there is a direct correlation, so we target
those suburbs. When a fire occurs in a home, we find that is when the awareness
is highest. So we letterbox drop and say, "Firefighters are going to come
and visit." We find they are waiting with open arms and they say:
"Please come in. What can we do?" The awareness is the highest
straight after a fire. That is just human nature.
As discussed above, gaps in the data for smoke and fire-related
incidents are undesirable for a number of reasons. The committee recognises
that data on these matters will never be absolutely complete. Some of the gaps,
for example, result from an individual's decision not to report a fire or seek
treatment and may never be captured. However, access to accurate and up-to-date
data on residential smoke and fire injuries, deaths, and associated property
damage is fundamental to understanding and subsequently addressing the
prevalence of residential fires in Australia.
The committee believes that data on the prevalence, cause and outcome of
residential fires throughout Australia needs to improve, its collection made
consistent across Australian jurisdictions and its access facilitated by a
single data holding. Such a resource would be invaluable to fire and emergency
services and Australian governments, providing information to direct their
efforts to reduce smoke and fire-related injuries, deaths and property damage.
With respect to data collection, the committee is of the view that fire
and emergency services must be required to contribute data to a national database
of residential fires. At a minimum, it should include the type of fire
incident, the location of the incident, the source of the fire, details of
fatalities and/or injuries, information about victims (for example age and
gender), whether or not a smoke alarm was present and operating, and an
estimate of the cost of any property damage. The committee understands that
much of this information is already collected by state and territory fire
services; the committee also notes that information such as this is collected
in Great Britain.
The committee is also aware that Canada is about to establish a National
Fire Information Database (NFID) to 'gather and unify 10 years of fire
information from across the country and create Canada's first national system for
collecting fire statistics' with the intention of linking fire data with other
relevant datasets and initiating the creation of 'new evidence-based research
related to fire, public safety, and security'.
The NFID is a collaboration between the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs
(CAFC) and the Council of Canadian Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners
(CCFMFC) with federal support from the Canadian Safety and Security Program.
The national database will:
Establish a single, central database about Canada's National Fire
Standardize and improve data collection, methodology, and
Link fire data with existing socioeconomic data sets including
health, crime, education, housing, etc. to provide a level of public safety
research and data that has never been seen before
Provide Fire Marshals and Chief Fire Officers with evidence-based
research they can use to provide policy and operational guidance that respond
to trends that currently cannot be adequately identified.
Enhance the ability of fire officials to understand incident
dynamics, and actual and potential threats to public safety.
Provide a valuable data source for in depth academic research
that can be combined with incident observations and experiences to generate new
knowledge in the public safety domain
Enhance and ensure the ongoing safety of the public, Canada's
firefighters and other first responders.
The CAFC has said of the NFID:
Without trusted evidence-based data, fire officials cannot
act with confidence when making choices to improve policy, resource use, and
other critical matters affecting the safety of Canadian communities. Moreover,
fire officials are facing increasing pressure - from both the public and
government decision makers - to justify their decisions and actions with hard
data. While many departments are collecting data at the local level, no single
jurisdiction, department, agency or organization can accomplish this alone at
the national level. The NFID will bring consistency and relevance to the data
that is collected, analyzed and used. It will enhance and ensure the ongoing
safety of the public, Canada’s firefighters and other first responders.
The committee therefore recommends that Australian governments work
collaboratively to establish a national database of residential fire incidents,
including but not limited to:
the type of fire incident;
the location of the incident;
the source of the fire;
details of fatalities and/or injuries;
information about victims;
the presence and operation of smoke alarms at the site of the
an estimate of the cost of any property damage.
The committee suggests that in developing a national database,
Australian governments give consideration to other similar databases already in
use, such as the Australian Ballistics Information Network (ABIN). The ABIN
manages electronic ballistic information and links local and national incidents
involving firearms, with input from all states and territories.
The committee recommends that Australian governments collaboratively
establish a national database of residential fire incidents and that state and
territory fire and emergency services are adequately resourced to collect and
report data to that national database.
The committee also believes there is merit in facilitating reporting of
residential fire incidents by enabling members of the public to report these
directly to through a national reporting and recording mechanism, in an effort
to capture statistics on currently unreported incidents. The committee suggests
that such a reporting mechanism is available online and also via the post and
by telephone; it should also provide members of the public with information
about fire safety in the home, details for local fire and emergency services,
and contact details for support services including medical assistance and
The committee is aware that the success of a reporting mechanism would
rely on educating people about it, its use and benefits, as well as ensuring
that it is easy to use. Given that those at the highest risk of smoke and
fire-related death and injury are often already vulnerable (for example older
Australians and Australians with a disability), such a reporting mechanism
should also be publicised throughout the community sector.
The committee recommends that Australian governments consider establishing
a national residential fire reporting and recording mechanism to capture
statistics of currently unreported residential fire incidents.
The impact of fire-related deaths and injuries
Smoke and fire related injuries and deaths can have life-long effects on
victims, their family and friends, and the emergency personnel who attend the
incident. They can also lead to serious and chronic physical and psychological injury
requiring ongoing support and rehabilitation. The Logan House Fire Support
Network (LHFSN) stated:
Even with a non-fatal [the occupants] have lost all of their
possessions – just the shock of it all as they try to get back on their feet.
We clothe them but they look at themselves and realise it is not what they used
to wear. Even that affects them psychologically. It is just the little things
as they try to get back on their feet. We will certainly try to help them out
with furniture, but it is that lounge that you sit on after a hard days work
and then here is this stranger who has come along and given you another lounge,
and it is just not yours. All of the psychological effects are ongoing.
Similarly, Mr Keith Golinski, whose son suffered serious burns and lost
his wife and all their children in a house fire, told the committee '[y]ou
never get over it. Nobody does. You simply cannot dwell on that fact. You have
a life to go on with and you have to complete it without them'.
Commissioner Greg Mullins, President of AFAC, recalling one of the first
fire fatalities he attended as a firefighter, stated:
It is embedded in my memory. When we arrived, at about 4 am,
flames were shooting from windows on two sides of the building and residents
above the unit were trapped. We extinguished the flames—although that is a
short statement, but it was really difficult to do. When we made entry to a
bedroom that was totally burnt out we found a charred body sitting on the edge
of the bed. I can see it now and I will never forget the walking frame just out
of reach in front of where the person was.
The old lady would have been about the same age as my own
grandmother. We found some photos of her with her obviously beloved
grandchildren. People had heard screaming earlier in the night but said they
did not want to interfere. Maybe if they had heard a smoke alarm go off they
would have. I was horrified by what that lady went through and I lost a lot of
sleep. In my nightmares I saw my own beautiful grandmother burning.
In terms of treating fire-related injuries '...treatment of burns is not a
one off intervention. Surviving burn injuries involves a lifetime of ongoing
treatment and rehabilitation'.
The financial cost of treating burn injuries is also significant. In 2010, the
House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health and Ageing heard that the
true cost of burn injuries is hidden. Drawing on British research which
suggested that the true cost of burn injuries is obscured, with one third arising
from the acute hospital cost and two thirds attributed to rehabilitation and
loss of income, it was estimated that the true cost of burn injuries could be
as high as $197 million a year. The MFB outlined the costs (in 2012) of
treating a burns patient, not including the cost of follow-up procedures and
post-hospital out-patient care and therapy: the average cost of acute hospital
treatment for an adult burns patient was $71,056; the cost for a burns patient
with 62 per cent total body surface area burn was
With regard to property damage and loss, the MFB also stated:
Smoke and fire related damage...can result in a loss of
possessions, essential documents and valuables. It may also result in a person
living in a partially damaged home or being required to relocate to other
accommodation for an extended period, resulting in additional (and unplanned)
financial burdens. For people without contents and/or home insurance, and/or in
socially or financially disadvantaged position, the immediate and long term
costs of residential fire may be severe and potentially life changing.
Susceptibility to fire-related deaths and injuries
Professor Ian Thomas and Emeritus Professor Dorothy Bruck advised the
committee '[i]n considering improving the level of fire safety in our
communities it is important to consider the people who actually die in fires
The committee heard evidence indicating that people made vulnerable by
age or another factor are most likely to be victims of smoke and fire-related
deaths and injuries. Victorian coronial data from January 1998 to February 2005
shows that more than half of adult fatalities in accidental domestic building
fires were mentally ill.
The study also indicated that 75 per cent of victims had alcohol or drugs in
The study by Professors Thomas and Bruck concluded that 'many of those currently
killed (or injured) are vulnerable (or at-risk) because of their age, physical
or mental condition, use of alcohol or other drugs (prescribed and
non-prescribed) and other factors'.
The MFB likewise stated that those at risk include '...those who are less
likely to be able to install and maintain a working smoke alarm...[including]
elderly and disabled persons, international students and workers, and people
who are socially or financially disadvantaged – in other words, persons who are
among the most vulnerable in our community'.
The MFB highlighted that people aged 0-4 or aged over 65, and those
experiencing social or financial disadvantage, are at the greatest risk of
dying as a result of being involved in a residential fire.
The risk of death or injury as a result of fire faced by older
Australians was also discussed by National Seniors Australia, which raised
concerns for older Australians in residential facilities:
In 2011, 170,000 Australians were living in a nursing home.
That will increase significantly as the population ages. Three-quarters, or 77
per cent, were aged 80 and over. Fifty-seven per cent were aged 85 and over.
They are our most vulnerable Australians. They have limited or no mobility.
They are unable to get out of bed on their own, often, and sometimes require
two staff to help them up. Some have cognitive impairment and have challenges,
therefore, understanding instructions for a quick evacuation. At the best of
times, we all know, nursing homes are notorious for their staffing shortages,
particularly after hours.
National Seniors Australia also expressed concerns for older Australians
while the MFB told the committee that people aged over 65 represented 50 per
cent of all preventable residential fire fatalities in the Melbourne
Metropolitan District between 2000 and 2010.
Emergency Management Victoria (EMV) concluded that, in light of this, '[f]or
an increasing number in the community, the presence (or not) of a smoke alarm
alone will not be a sufficient intervention to promote, let alone guarantee, a
successful fire safety outcome'.
Or, as the Australian Building Code Board (ABCB) concluded when considering
amendments to the National Construction Code (NCC) requirements for smoke
alarms in 2012, 'design and engineering solutions are only part of the answer'.
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