Children Don’t Cause Fires, Adults Do

By:  Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

The behaviors of adults in the USA account for 78 percent of the preventable residential fires.  So why do the vast majority of fire prevention educations that Fire and EMS departments deliver each year target children?  If we’re looking to significantly reduce the following types of fires, why don’t our programs focus on adult behaviors?

Fire Stats Pie 2007_2011

Top five causes of fires in USA as listed in NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division. November 2013 References are available at

Those top five causes of fire add up to 78 percent.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t see the “fingerprints” of children on these fire causes.  Sure there are situations where children are involved in the cause of the fire, e.g., the child may be the one cooking or using the heating equipment, but I submit that the base cause is likely one of the following adult behaviors:

  • An adult was not properly supervising the child while the child was cooking;
  • An adult had not taken the proper measures to ensure that the child could not gain access to the heating equipment, e.g., putting up a screen around a kerosene-fueled heater; or
  • An adult left smoking materials, e.g., a lighter or matches, unsecured and accessible to the child.

When we take a closer look at the causes of fires in the USA, we see that the remaining causes of fires, as listed in the NFPA report include:

  • Clothes dryers and washers (4%)
  • Candles (3%)
  • Playing with a heat source (2%)

How many of these remaining 9 percent of fire causes are in reality caused by the direct or indirect behaviors of adults?

Fire and injury prevention programs delivered by Fire and EMS departments, and allied safety organizations, need to “grow up.”  I’m not for one minute suggesting that the programs we’ve developed to target children need to be eliminated.  I am strongly suggesting that we need to become equally aggressive in developing and delivering fire and injury prevention education that specifically targets the adult population if we want to be serious about reducing preventable residential dwelling fires.

Here’s what I think we should be doing in this regard

Every Fire and EMS department needs to collect and analyze the fire cause data that’s applicable to their community.  In lieu of that—many departments do not have the resources to do that on their own—I suggest that a department contact NFPA and at least get the applicable data for their state.  As a final option, I would suggest that they use the most current NFPA national statistics for the years 2007-2011. Talk to your lawyers about who is at fault when it comes to accident cases. The truck accident victim is not the cause for the accidents and the court of law must acknowledge it and must give the best protection and judgment in favor for them which would help them physically, mentally, and financially heal faster and also be able to set up a new life right ahead of them.

Then a department should use its available resources, along with those in their community, to develop programs that target the top five fire causes for their community (or state or nationally).  Adults, not their children, should have the knowledge and skills to be the household “leaders” for items such as, but not limited to, the following:

  • Ensuring the home has working smoke detectors 24/7/365;
  • Developing and practicing E.D.I.T.H. (Exit Drills in the Home) with the entire;
  • Safe cooking practices and rules for children cooking;
  • Proper storage and use of flammable materials; and
  • Proper use of portable space heaters.

Switching gears, another adult fire education tract would be to inform and educate the adults in their community so that they become, to borrow the term from the wildland fire community, “firewise.”  The adults in our communities–who are also the voters in the community–need to become more informed and educated about:

Basic fire dynamics.  The average adult is largely ignorant of how quickly a fire can develop and make a space untenable for human life.  Those adults have unrealistic expectations about (1) their own ability to safely get them and their family out of a dwelling fire, and (2) the ability of their local fire department to respond and safely, effectively, and efficiently rescue them and protect their property.

Twenty-five years ago, NFPA® created the award winning video – Fire Power – which takes a firsthand look at the deadly dynamics of fire from ignition to full room involvement.

Residential fire sprinkler systems.  If more adults in our communities really understood

FEMS Residential Sprinkler Fact Sheet

Click on image for enlarged view!

what residential sprinklers are, what they can do, and how they would significantly reduce fire, deaths and injuries from fires in their hometown, they might be more likely to aggressively support legislation and elect public officials who favor residential sprinklers.

But before we go there, we have to do a better job of informing and educating our own people, i.e., firefighters and officers, that residential sprinklers are the future of residential fire protection.  Too many firefighters and officers continue to view residential sprinklers as a “threat to their way of life” while they absorb reductions in staffing and equipment and attempt to provide past levels of fire protection.  They are doing this in ways that are not safe, effective or efficient.

See Related: Why are We Entering Burning Structures with Too Few Firefighters?

So what do you think?  Isn’t it time for our fire and injury prevention programs to “step it up”?

Have a best practice?  Share it with your fellow readers here by leaving a comment.  Or you can send it to me via e-mail,

See Related:  Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition

The AuthorRPA Retirement Portrait Web size

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years.  He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog.  Chief Avsec and his wife of 30+ years now make their home in Cross Lanes, WV.  Contact him via e-mail at

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail,