A Canadian fire department is driving down house fires through a cost-effective program that leverages fire-education best practices and statistical data.
The Surrey (B.C.) Fire Service launched HomeSafe in October 2008. The program uses local fire and demographic data to target fire hotspots in the community for door-to-door firefighter visits and smoke-alarm giveaways.
Formal evaluation of the program’s first two years showed HomeSafe reduced the annual fire rate in the city’s highest-risk homes by 64% and prevented an estimated $1.26 million in fire losses. The program also increased smoke-alarm activations and reduced fire size and spread.
An Evidence-Based Approach
The Surrey Fire Service, which serves a city of 472,000 near Vancouver, took its usual evidence-based approach to develop HomeSafe: define the problem, conduct or assemble research to identify a proven solution, and make ongoing improvements based on evaluation. HomeSafe is rooted in research of international fire education best practices as well as detailed analysis conducted by the local University of the Fraser Valley of nearly 5,000 structure fires in Surrey over a 10-year period.
The university’s research revealed certain fire trends, including:
- Over 75% of Surrey’s structure fires involved residential properties.
- Fire incidence was not random. For example, it increased when occupants smoked, were elderly, had a disability, or had mental-health or substance-abuse issues.
- Residential structure fires tended to be clustered geographically, based on dwelling use, sources of ignition (e.g., cooking, open flames), and the presence of functioning smoke alarms.
- Research into international fire education best practices convinced the fire chief and his team to develop a home visitation program to address these trends.
Since the 1990s, international research has shown that public-education programs are an effective way to reduce residential fires. For example, “Proving Fire Education Works,” written for the TriData Corp. in 1990, highlighted the positive impact of 77 public-education strategies including school-based programs, comprehensive community-wide programs, programs targeting a specific cause of fire or audience, juvenile firesetter programs, smoke-detector programs, and national strategies. All 77 initiatives demonstrated positive impact in some form.
More recent research points to home visitation programs as being particularly effective when delivering fire education. A TriData review of best practices in residential fire prevention highlighted the impact of home visitation programs in the U.K. that targeted fire safety inspections and risk reduction, and emphasized the importance of working smoke alarms.
Similar home visitation initiatives have become a crucial component of Canadian residential fire-prevention efforts, often implemented by either community-based volunteers or by acquiring additional prevention funds. These types of visits have focused on issues including the presence and functionality of smoke alarms, the development of fire-escape plans, and public education on common causes of preventable house fires, with the typical result being reduced rates of fires and increased presence of working smoke alarms.
However, these types of initiatives also had lacked conclusive, formal evaluations and have often become victims of their own success, with funding and focus redirected after the problems were perceived to have been resolved.
Surrey Fire Service was determined to avoid these pitfalls and further develop the home visitation concept. HomeSafe was the first program of its kind in North America to be subjected to a formal evaluation, which was published in the March 2012 edition of the Journal of Safety Research under the title “Reduced Frequency and Severity of Residential Fires Following Delivery of Fire Prevention Education by On-duty Fire Fighters,” as well as other publications.
HomeSafe also builds on the concept developed in the UK by employing local fire and demographic data to target neighborhoods historically associated with fire risk, as well as emerging fire hotspots.