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Reducing Residential Fire Hazards

The most frequent causes of residential fires are devices used to heat homes or cook meals and damaged electrical equipment. The lack of functional smoke alarms and maintenance of heating devices presents a significant problem in rural areas and effective fire prevention programs should promote wider use of home fire protection systems. Rural fire departments can accomplish this by installing home fire prevention technology for residents in need through home safety visits and smoke alarm installation programs.

Fire Department Home Safety Visits

Home safety visits are a good opportunity for rural fire departments to use community risk reduction strategies such as engineering, financial incentives, and education strategies to prevent residential fires within their communities.

The Washington State Association of Fire Marshals recommends that fire departments initiate home safety visit programs in areas at high risk for fires or areas that have experienced fires recently. During a home safety visit, fire departments identify fire hazards within the home, such as heating and electrical equipment; test and donate fire prevention technology, such as smoke alarms; and offer one-on-one fire safety education to residents.

Identifying Fire Hazards during Home Safety Visits

There are several types of fire hazards that can be identified during a home safety visit. Fire hazards typically involve heating equipment, smoke alarms, and water supply.

Heating Equipment

Heating equipment — such as chimneys, fireplaces, and fixed heaters — is one of the leading causes of residential fire injuries in rural areas. Wood stoves are involved in most rural residential heating fires. Ensuring that rural residents are using EPA-certified wood stoves that meet local fire and building codes can significantly reduce the risk of fire-related injuries by cutting the creosote build-up in chimneys.

Rural fire departments can implement wood-burning appliance changeout programs to ensure that all wood stoves meet EPA requirements. These are voluntary programs that provide financial incentives and safety education to encourage families to replace or remove old and inefficient wood stoves, fireplaces, and fixed heaters. Upgrading and maintaining heating equipment can reduce fires and improve air quality in rural homes.

The EPA Burn Wise program's Wood-Burning Changeout Guide outlines best practices for implementing an effective residential wood-burning appliance program.

Smoke Alarms

According to the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA), smoke alarms can prevent over half of fire deaths that occur in homes. However, many rural residents do not have a working smoke alarm in their home.

A smoke alarm installation program can significantly reduce fire-related deaths and injuries in rural communities. Through a smoke alarm installation program, rural fire departments can inspect, donate, and install smoke alarms for residents in need. Rural fire departments can implement smoke alarm installation programs and home safety visit programs together or separately. The NFPA's guide, Planning and Implementing a Successful Smoke Alarm Installation Program, provides detailed steps on developing a smoke alarm installation program.

Water Supply

The remote and isolated landscape of some rural communities and homes can make finding and supplying onsite water difficult for rural fire departments. For example, many rural areas lack fire hydrants, requiring fire departments to bring water to the fires and leading to extended response times.

During a home safety visit, rural fire departments can identify limited water supply within and around homes. They should consider improvements to water supplies, such as the use of fire sprinklers or infrastructure changes that support fire hose operations. A dry hydrant, for example, is a pipe system that can draw water from a neighboring body of water, like a pond or lake. This type of pipe system can provide fire personnel with easy access to water during a fire emergency.

Examples of Rural Programs Reducing Residential Fire Risks

  • Tennessee's fire departments implemented a statewide Community Risk Reduction plan in 2017 to address unintentional fire fatalities in the state. Since then, Tennessee fire departments, including rural volunteer fire departments, have performed over 50,000 home visits to provide safety education and install smoke alarms.
    • In 2022, rural volunteer fire departments in Manchester, Tennessee successfully installed 500 smoke alarms in over 200 homes across Coffee County.
    • Get Alarmed, Tennessee! is a state-wide smoke alarm installation and fire safety education program administered by the State Fire Marshal's Office (SFMO). The goal of Get Alarmed, Tennessee! is to install smoke alarms and deliver fire safety education to at-risk communities across the state. The program focuses its resources on high-risk populations in Tennessee, including rural communities.
  • The American Red Cross Central Appalachia Region Home Fire Campaign serves several rural counties in Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. The campaign aims to prevent fire-related deaths and injuries in the U.S. by offering free home smoke alarm installations and home fire safety education for at-risk communities. In addition, the American Red Cross hosts several Sound the Alarm events nationwide as part of their Home Fire Campaign. During these events, volunteers provide fire safety information to the public and raise money for fire response, recovery, and preparedness in at-risk communities. The program aims to install 50,000 free smoke alarms for residents annually.
  • The Be Alarmed! Smoke Alarm Installation program is a collaborative effort between Dwight Fire Protection District, Illinois Fire Safety Alliance, and the Illinois Office of the State Fire Marshal to provide free smoke alarms to residents of Dwight Fire District. Be Alarmed! aims to educate residents on the dangers of fires and the importance of fire safety and prevention.
  • The Vermont Rural Fire Protection Task Force aims to reduce fire risk in rural communities by issuing dry hydrants and other types of rural water supplies to communities in need. The Vermont Rural Fire Protection Task Force also issues grants to Vermont towns and fire departments looking to implement fire suppression projects in their communities.
  • The Greater Portola Woodstove Changeout Program is a wood burning appliance changeout program initiated by the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District in 2015. This changeout program helps Plumas County, California residents replace their old wood stoves with EPA-approved heating devices that meet local fire and building codes.

Implementation Considerations

Home safety visits and smoke alarm installation programs are typically delivered in the home. This may present challenges for rural fire departments facing limited resources given the time it can take to travel within rural communities. Rural fire departments may consider identifying strategies for delivering fire prevention programming in community locations. For example, setting up smoke alarm distribution tables in places community members often visit such as schools, grocery stores, gas stations, and town halls can ensure broad outreach, without needing to travel door-to-door. Rural fire departments can also use similar strategies to deliver fire safety education and share fire safety education resources.

It is important for rural fire departments to prioritize communication and community partnership. Rural fire departments may experience resistance from the community when offering in-home services like home safety visits and smoke alarm installation. By prioritizing community partnership, rural fire departments can gain the trust of the community and facilitate this process. Rural fire departments should also consider publicizing their home safety visit or smoke alarm installation program well in advance through neighborhood outreach.

Program Clearinghouse Examples

Resources to Learn More

Standard on Water Supplies for Suburban and Rural Firefighting
Describes a procedure to identify the minimum amount of water supply needed to respond to a fire incident when water supply may be limited.
Organization(s): National Fire Protection Agency
Date: 2022

Rural Fire Prevention in Kentucky: Quick Response Team Report
Reports on a study to learn about fire prevention efforts of fire departments in five of Kentucky's rural to mid-size communities, and to determine what barriers affect the development of a community wide, proactive fire prevention network. Offers recommendations to address gaps and improve the impact of fire prevention.
Organization(s): Vision 2020
Date: 6/2014

Wood Burning Changeout Resources for Tribes
Offers a list of case studies and resources to assist in the implementation of a wood burning appliance changeout program to reduce the effect of residential wood smoke in tribal communities.
Organization(s): Environmental Protection Agency