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With house fires, adults increasingly at risk

Scan the headlines across the nation on any given week for stories about senior citizens involved in residential fires and it’s likely that ten or more will pop up. A wiring malfunction burns a house to the ground, a space heater catches a curtain on fire, a cigarette ignites an oxygen tank.  It is common scenarios like these that killed more than 720 seniors in 2002.  The tragedy, say fire safety experts, is that many of those deaths could have been prevented.

Children with aging parents often complain about the stubbornness of their parents and the independent streak that slams the door on any suggestions to modify the parents’ lifestyle.  The child might want a parent to relinquish a driver’s license or move to an assisted living facility.

For Kathy Gerstner the quarrel has been over the location of her 83-year-old mother’s bedroom.  The mother insists on sleeping upstairs.  The daughter wants her downstairs where she could more easily escape the home in an emergency.  The dispute is particularly ironic considering that Gerstner educates the elderly about fire safety for the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA).

“We’ve tried and tried to talk to her, but she won’t change,” said Gerstner. One of the difficulties in getting seniors to modify habits, she says, is that they either don’t know or don’t want to make the necessary adaptations to lower their fire risk.

Habits like smoking can be particularly deadly as a person ages. Combined with reduced mobility and medication that increases drowsiness and decreases reaction time, smoking causes the most fire fatalities among the elderly. 

This was the case with a recent fire in Sacramento, Calif.  When firefighters arrived at the apartment of the 62-year-old woman who had called 911, they found her body in a chair, her walker nearby.  The fire, lit by a cigarette, had touched nothing but the woman and the chair.  Fire officials say this is a fairly common occurrence.

Small fires deadly

“It’s not the big fires that get the seniors.  It’s a small fire,” said Sacramento City Fire Department Battalion Chief Niko King.  Sacramento has one of the busiest fire stations in the nation and has seen its share of elderly fire victims.  That’s why, King says, the department continually meets with community groups to teach seniors about fire safety.

Basic safety recommendations include smoking outside, installing smoke detectors on every level of a house, regularly changing smoke detector batteries, keeping a fire extinguisher accessible and drafting an escape plan.

While smoking is the leading cause of fire-related deaths for seniors, cooking fires cause the most injuries.  Loose clothing such as hanging sleeves can quickly ignite near an open flame.  Pot holders, paper towels and other flammable items left near a stove are also to blame for many kitchen fires. Safety experts recommend that seniors never leave cooking unattended, and that they double-check the kitchen before leaving the house or going to bed.

Another high-risk category for seniors is heating.  The elderly, who are often more likely to live in poverty, frequently use alternative heating sources like portable space heaters to lower energy bills.  This can turn deadly if space heaters are placed near flammable materials like curtains.

If a fire does break out, automatic fire sprinklers installed in a home can avert tragedy.  It is one of the key recommendations of the USFA’s 50-Plus campaign—a campaign that can help the elderly save money on their homeowners insurance costs.  A fire alarm system hooked up to a third-party monitoring company, a live-in employee, using fire resistant building materials and being a nonsmoker can each provide discounts of up to 20 percent on insurance premiums, depending on the company.  Many property insurers also give discounts to retirees.

As the elderly population is expected to nearly double over the next 20 years and baby boomers move into retirement, safety experts anticipate a growing need for fire safety awareness.  Gerstner says she hopes education efforts made now will eventually drive down the number of fire-related deaths and injuries.

The insurance industry is hoping for the same.

“Although the number of elderly who die in fires is likely to increase as the elderly population increases, the rate of death--that is, the number at any age who will die from that cause--is unlikely to change.  Indeed, it's possible that the growing numbers of elderly will focus more attention on this issue, increasing the use of prevention and/or mitigation measures,” said Steven Weisbart, economist with the Insurance Information Institute.

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