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The following information is from the publication entitled Fire Risks for Older Adults, published in October 1999 by the United States Fire Administration. For more information, please visit their website at United States Fire Administration

The Fire Risk Series: Fire Risks for Older Adults

Executive Summary

Older adults represent one of the highest fire risk populations in the United States. As a result of progressive degeneration in physical, cognitive, and emotional capabilities, older adults present unique challenges in the fields of fire protection, prevention, and safety. Complications associated with aging increase the likelihood that an elderly person will accidentally start a fire and at the same time reduce his or her chances of surviving it. As the nation's elderly population grows, the fire death toll will likely rise in direct proportion to that growth unless measures are taken to ameliorate the risks associated with this group. The fire safety community must address the fire safety needs of older adults or be faced with the potential for a severe public health problem.

The key findings of this report are summarized below:

The Fire Problem and Older Adults

  • People over the age of 65 are the fastest growing segment of the American population.
  • Over 1,200 Americans over the age of 65 die as a result of a fire each year. Older adults comprise over 25 percent of fire deaths of all ages, and 30 percent of fire deaths that occur in the home.
  • Fires and burns are a leading cause of deaths from unintentional injuries among older adults.
  • Residential fires injure an average of 3,000 older adults each year.
  • Fires caused by smoking are the leading cause of fire deaths in the elderly.
  • Fires caused by cooking are the leading cause of fire-related injuries in the elderly.
  • Elderly fire victims usually come in close contact with the heat source that starts the fire.
  • Adults in the age group between 65 and 75 have a fire death rate twice that of the national average; between 75 and 85, three times the national average; and over 85, four times the national average.

Fire Risks

  • The aging process, with its associated illnesses and impairments, leaves a person vulnerable to a variety of accidental injuries, including fires and burns.
  • The likelihood of experiencing a severe disability increases with age. Impairments associated with the aging process, such as blindness or deafness, predispose the elderly to accidental injuries, including fires.
  • Approximately 30 percent of noninstitutionalized older adults live alone, placing them at higher risk for accidental injury.
  • Group assisted-living facilities and nursing homes pose unique fire risks to both their residents and firefighters.
  • Nearly 20 percent of older adults live at or below the poverty line, and the relationship between poverty and fires is a compounding fire risk.
  • Many older adults take multiple medications, the interaction of which can cause a variety of side effects, including confusion, that may alter the decision-making process and increase the potential for accidents.
  • The impairments caused by the combination of alcohol and prescription drugs in older adults can be significant. Such impairments may lead to an increased likelihood of accidentally starting a fire, not detecting a fire, and not being able to escape a fire.

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New York-Presbyterian. The University Hospitals of Columbia and Cornell