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Dissecting data

The Surrey Fire Service in British Columbia has a new tool to help it ensure the right kind of public education information gets to the right people.

September 14, 2009 
By Amanda McCormick and Len Garis

 Photos courtesy Surrey Fire Service
In the Surrey study, smoke alarms were significantly more likely to be installed in homes owned by the resident (68.5 per cent) than in rented homes (49 per cent).


The Surrey Fire Service in British Columbia has a new tool to help it ensure the right kind of public education information gets to the right people.

A study of residential fires by neighbourhood, and the causes of those fires, shows that homeowners are more likely than renters to have smoke alarms installed but that many home-owners fail to properly maintain the alarms.

Now, the Surrey Fire Service can better shape its education and distribution programs for different neighbourhoods and demographics and target specific causes of residential fires within those neighbourhoods and demographics.


The Surrey Fire Service and the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of the Fraser Valley recently partnered to analyze fire data from the last two decades. The purpose of the study was to identify the characteristics of residential fires in Surrey and to identify factors that increased the likelihood of injury and/or death, as well as the associated costs of residential fires.

Almost half of the fires in Canada every year happen in residential structures and most are caused by, cooking, smoking cigarettes, heating equipment or electrical malfunction. Most of these fires can be attributed to accidental causes resulting from human error or negligence. Obviously, then, it’s essential that residents adopt fire prevention and fire-safety behaviour including the installation and maintenance of smoke alarms.

Between 1988 and 2007, three-quarters of the 4,758 structure fires that occurred in Surrey were residential fires. In 2007, the rate of fire was approximately 76 fires per 100,000 people. The majority (87.5 per cent) of these 3,594 residential fires occurred in year-round, single-family dwellings, about three-quarters (71.2 per cent) of which were privately owned and lived in while slightly more than one-quarter (27.4 per cent) were rented. A slightly higher percentage of fires occurred between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. (54.3 per cent) than during the day (45.7 per cent). The cost of these fires was estimated at $29 million.

Source of ignition
Overwhelmingly, the most common source of ignition was cooking. Other sources included a match/open flame and heating- or appliance-related fires. Not surprisingly, nearly three-quarters (71.6 per cent) of all residential fires were attributed to an accidental cause, often indicating negligence by the residents.

Source of ignition of residential fires between 2003 and 2007


Smoke alarms
Although there appeared to be an increasing trend in the proportion of homes that had installed smoke alarms, more than one-third (36 per cent) of homes involved in a fire did not have a smoke alarm installed. Smoke alarms were significantly more likely to be installed in homes owned by the resident (68.5 per cent) than in rented homes (49 per cent) Of the 1,554 homes that did have a smoke alarm installed, in approximately half (49.5 per cent) of the fires the alarm was not activated. In another 56 fires (3.6 per cent), the alarm activated unsuccessfully (either the resident was unable to respond or the alarm was inaudible). In fact, the data showed a declining trend in functioning smoke alarm presence, to the point where less than one-third (30 per cent) of residences had a functioning smoke alarm in place. Functioning smoke alarms were significantly more likely to be found in houses owned by the resident (39.6 per cent) than in rented homes (25 per cent).

Smoke alarm installation and function 1988-2007


Although the majority (66.2 per cent) of cases were missing information about why the smoke alarm did not function, several causes were identified. In 16.2 per cent of cases where the reason for lack of activation was specifically identified, the cause was location in an unsuitable place. Another 8.4 per cent failed to activate because of a missing or dead battery, while the power was disconnected for another 7.7 per cent. Just 1.4 per cent of smoke alarms failed because of mechanical problems. These results suggest that residents are installing smoke alarms but failing to maintain them, or are removing the batteries for reasons such as annoyance. In other words, the failure of many of these smoke alarms to activate during a fire is directly attributable to human negligence. This is an important finding, as the presence of a functioning smoke alarm was significantly associated with a lower average cost for the fire. The average amount of loss when a fire alarm functioned was $30,671.72 compared to an average loss of $62,454.72 when the alarm did not function.

Implications for fire departments
The data revealed some important trends in fire safety that will help the Surrey Fire Service in its campaigns that involve the distribution and possible installation of home smoke alarms. Public education campaigns can be made more effective by specifically targeting sub-groups, (for example, age or neighbourhood) of the population based on their differing risks and needs. This approach was recently identified as a best-practice approach in the United Kingdom, where the British fire service has been identifying and visiting high-risk households to promote fire safety behaviours.

Fire services in the U.K. have achieved astounding results through the introduction of home fire-safety visits and distribution campaigns. Over the past decade, the rate of accidental fires in homes has fallen by one-fifth, while in some jurisdictions this rate has been cut almost in half. These outcomes are the tangible results of more than two million home fire-safety checks and the installation of more than two million smoke alarms. The results of the U.K. approach have provided support for the need to implement an evidence-based approach to fire safety education, rather than indiscriminately visiting homes. Fire services are directing their outreach efforts to homes at greater risk for residential fires.

 A study of residential fires by neighbourhood, and the causes of those fires, has given the Surrey Fire Service the tools necessary to better shape its education programs for certain neighbourhoods and demographics.


Next steps
In keeping with the U.K. approach, a home-safety program has been introduced in Surrey that will provide residents with tools to improve the safety of their homes and to learn more about the hazards that typically create residential fires. The evidence-based strategies that have been created for the implementation of this new HomeSafe Program were developed through the study. These strategies include visiting homes to conduct home-safety inspections (see for information on the additional strategies). Residents are presented with information on fire prevention and fire safety and a checklist of risks for fire specific to their households. They are also given a free smoke alarm if they don’t already have one installed.

It is essential that an evaluation of each community’s needs be completed before beginning home fire-safety visits so that an informed approach can be taken based on the particular needs of the residents of that community.

For instance, Surrey is composed of six sub-communities, each of which was associated with a different source of ignition. These six sub-communities also had varying rates of smoke-alarm installation and smoke-alarm maintenance. Similarly, the study identified a significant relationship between smoke alarms and ownership status, with owners of homes significantly more likely to have a smoke alarm installed and/or functioning compared to renters. These details will be used by Surrey Fire in future campaigns to increase awareness regarding the importance of installing and maintaining residential smoke alarms.
In other words, armed with the results of this study, the Surrey Fire can engage in targeted awareness campaigns in each community that are built on the knowledge of the typical source of ignition and the likelihood of a functioning smoke alarm.

Given that previous research indicates that the presence of a functioning smoke alarm significantly reduces the likelihood of injury, death, and excessive costs from residential fires, it is essential that the fire service encourage the installation and proper maintenance of smoke alarms.

While home fire-safety visits have shown dramatic success in the U.K., the limits of such campaigns lie in the inability of the fire services to enforce the installation and maintenance of smoke alarms. To encourage residents to improve their residential fire-safety practices, it may be worthwhile to encourage the use of incentives. For instance, insurance companies may have an interest in encouraging compliance by residents, given that the average amount of loss is significantly lower when a functioning smoke alarm is in place. As such, there is a potential relationship to be developed between fire services and insurance companies; by requiring that a home-safety inspection be completed prior to renewing homeowners insurance, the proportion of homes with functioning smoke alarms in place should increase dramatically, leading to fewer casualties and lower costs.

The likelihood of successful fire-safety education will be increased according to the extent that these campaigns reflect specifically on the particular needs of each community. Given that each community within a city has different propensities for fire, it is important the fire services do not apply education campaigns randomly but instead adopt a strategic approach.

“We need to inform people of the risks they face in their private dwellings from a wide number of potential fire threats,” said Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis.

“We hope to see extensive demand for the voluntary home safety inspections as residents try to improve their recognition of hazards, increase their ability to respond quickly, and assist in preventing domestic fires throughout the city.”

The full report can be viewed at

Amanda McCormick is a PhD student at Simon Fraser University, and an instructor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of the Fraser Valley.
Len Garis is the fire chief in Surrey, B.C.

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