There is much that binds together the eclectic neighbourhoods of Philadelphia. A shared passion for sports, for one – ours is one of the few cities in the US with a professional franchise in all four major leagues. An appreciation of history is another – how could it not run deep in the city where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed? And that’s not even mentioning our love of the arts, something reflected in an array of world-class galleries and museums.

Unfortunately, there is another, invidious, factor that connects the city’s citizens: a shared vulnerability to death by fire. Despite the best efforts of the Philadelphia Fire Department (PFD), since 2010 there has been an average of 19 deaths per 1 million residents annually – twice the national average. It’s not the fault of the PFD. Analysis shows that their crews were attending 90% of incidents within 5 minutes, far better than the national average of 10 minutes. Clearly, then, the issue is rooted in deeper, more underlying factors.

The PFD, together with the American Red Cross and The Boston Consulting Group, teamed up to identify what these were and develop a plan to reduce the number of fire fatalities in the city. How have we got on?

Fire fight

It’s important to note that not all types of fire are equally deadly or easy to contain. Although most fire fatalities can be traced back to lack of awareness during fires or to human negligence, we discovered from our research that most fires are sparked by accidents in the kitchen. However, we also established that it is those which start as a result of faulty electric wiring that lead to most fatalities. Smoking, too, features highly. Not only does it cause a huge number of fires, but they frequently lead to fatalities.

Our research also identified four segments of society that are particularly at risk from fire incidents. Children are more likely to cause ignition and are less aware of danger. Elderly citizens are generally less mobile, spend more time at home and are more likely to suffer from visual or hearing impairments. Low income families, meanwhile, are less able to afford home upkeep and have outdated codes, and non-English-speaking communities have a potential language barrier and are mostly concentrated outside the city centre.

A fire fatality can often be traced to a combination of factors. Those without a functioning smoke alarm or planned escape route can take too long to get out of the house or call the PFD. This intensifies when fires strike at night – as they often do – or if the house has a lot of children or elderly people living there. Another issue is the city’s old brownstone housing stock – striking architecture, sure, but offering one exit to their inhabitants is hardly ideal. Acquiring the knowledge about how to prevent fires is crucial, but so too is knowing that, if fire breaks out, your only priorities are to understand what is happening and then leave as fast as possible.

Based on this root cause analysis, two initiatives have been developed to counter and reverse the city’s high number of fire fatalities. To prevent the ignition of fatal fires, eight key messages have been developed to educate high-risk residents about fire safety. And to ensure resident safety during fires, we, as a city, have long known that more smoke alarms need to be installed. Having a functioning alarm reduces the likelihood of fatalities by 50%, but our analysis showed that 57,000 high priority and 63,000 medium priority homes did not have one installed – much work then for us to do.

Break out to flame out

To maximise our impact, we started by mapping the highest risk areas by their number of priority housing units, identified by factors such as the number of units in each building and whether it was built before 1990.

Smoke alarm installation and education targets have been set for every PFD station in the city, each with a detailed plan underpinning it. Online interactive maps have also been developed to allow each fire truck to coordinate the installation process. This makes information accessible on location and enables real-time updates on progress towards each month’s target.

As part of the implementation plan, a two-month pilot scheme has been launched to test the feasibility of installation targets and the viability of the online tools. Involving five PFD stations in west Philadelphia, battalion chiefs have been tasked with coordinating the effort and identifying any issues prior to full-scale roll-out. With each fire engine assigned between 50 and 70 installations a month, the pilot is progressing well and achieving the expected results.

Educational campaigns are also under way. With Red Cross volunteers leafleting targeted neighbourhoods, local television stations are promoting the key messages and advertising the free smoke alarm installation programme. Having a viable escape plan (knowing two ways out), only smoking when outside, and sleeping with your bedroom doors closed are just some of the points we want to get across. The condition of your home’s electrical wiring is also crucial – inspecting cables and unplugging devices will literally save lives.

Smoke clearing

The success of the pilot programme means that the time for a full-scale roll-out of both initiatives is fast approaching – and not a moment too soon. Once both programmes are fully implemented, and if all goes to plan, there could be a reduction of fatalities by 40% to 50% over the next 10 years.

Although there remains much still to do, recent progress has shown that the susceptibility of Philadelphia and its citizens to fire need not endure. A safer future lies ahead – so let’s get to work.

 

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