Targeted safety efforts cut Philly fire death toll to all-time low

A fire in July 2014 that killed four children prompted the Philadelphia Fire Department to study communities at higher risk for fire fatalities.
(AP Photo/Michael Perez

A fire in July 2014 that killed four children prompted the Philadelphia Fire Department to study communities at higher risk for fire fatalities. (AP Photo/Michael Perez

Last year, 12 people in Philadelphia died in fires — the lowest fire-fatality toll in the city’s history.

In July 2014, a three-alarm fire ripped through a string of rowhouses in Southwest Philadelphia, killing four children younger than 4.

Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer said that’s when the department teamed up with the American Red Cross and a consulting firm to study the problem and identify communities at a higher risk for fire fatalities.

They found those most at risk include older adults; lower-income people; those without high-school diplomas; and those living in houses built before 1940. Fire deaths also correlated to missing or malfunctioning smoke alarms and problems with electrical equipment and wiring. 

“If you’re living in poverty, you don’t have the means to upgrade your electrical system to a newer system,” said Sawyer. “You have less electrical outlets in older homes, so you’re using more extension cords.”

In 2014, 32 people died in fires. Last year, that number dropped by 63 percent.

In July, the department and the American Red Cross launched the “no more fire deaths” campaign, which involved installing smoke alarms with batteries that can last for up to a decade in high-risk neighborhoods. 

The department is keeping track of these installations so that in 10 years, it can remind homeowners to change their alarms. The Red Cross is also conducting free fire safety assessments, and residents who cannot afford a smoke alarm can get one through 311, the city’s non-emergency service.

In 2015, the department installed 10,639 alarms in more than 4,000 homes.

There have been four fire deaths so far this year, compared to five in the same time period last year.

“But we still have some work to do because the goal is zero,” Sawyer said. “And even though that’s a hefty goal to achieve, we believe that at some point we can have zero fire deaths in the city.”

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