Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Spotlight on working smoke alarms

By Larry Thomas, Samar Al-Hajj, Len Garis and Ian Pike   

Features smoke alarms

Successful B.C. outreach program a model as fire fatalities rise

Photo credit: Larry Thomas, Samar Al-Hajj, Len Garis and Ian Pike

Amid the worrying uptake in Canadian fire deaths comes some encouraging news, in the form of research underscoring the outstanding potential of evidence-based smoke alarm outreach to protect life and property, along with promising new tools for communities.

A July 2023 article published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health studied the exceptional results of the City of Surrey, B.C.’s long-running HomeSafe program, which provides education and free smoke alarms to high-risk neighbourhoods and populations identified by data.

Entitled “Community Fire Risk Reduction: Longitudinal Assessment for HomeSafe Fire Prevention Program in Canada,” the article discusses an evaluation of 12 years of data that showed HomeSafe increased the presence of working smoke alarms by 60 per cent and the increased percentage of contained fires by 94 per cent, while decreasing fire rates by 80 per cent and fire deaths by 40 per cent.

Article authors Samar Al-Hajj, Larry Thomas, Shelley Morris, Joseph Clare, Charles Jennings and Chris Biantoro, Len Garis and Ian Pike bring backgrounds in the fire service, public safety and injury prevention research through the British Columbia Injury Research and Prevention Unit, City of Surrey Fire Service, University of Western Australia, John Jay College of Criminal Justice and University of the Fraser Valley.

The work is timely given the concerning rise in fire deaths in Canada. Although fire incidents had been declining pre-pandemic, Statistics Canada (StatsCan) reported in June that data from the National Fire Information Database revealed increasing fires and deaths as of 2020 across the seven Canadian reporting jurisdictions: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, Manitoba, B.C, Yukon and the Canadian Armed Forces.

Among the seven, Ontario and B.C. had the most substantial increases. In June, Ontario’s Fire Marshal reported 133 fire deaths in 2022 – the most in more than two decades – while in B.C., the Office of the Fire Commissioner (OFC) noted fire fatalities had tripled since 2019, to 86 in 2022.

The article noted that globally, residential fires represent the third leading cause of unintentional injuries.

A Look at Surrey’s Award-Winning HomeSafe Program

The City of Surrey launched its HomeSafe program in 2008 to address the frequency and impact of residential fires, based on international best practices and statistical data that demonstrated greater fire risk among households with young children, older adults, single parents and lower incomes, as well as a high proportion of fires being caused by cooking in single-family dwellings.

Using fire and demographic data, HomeSafe targets at-risk neighbourhoods for door-to-door fire safety education delivered by Surrey Fire Service firefighters or volunteers, along with free smoke alarm installations and inspections, and validation of working smoke alarms at every opportunity. In its first two years alone, the program reduced the annual fire rate in Surrey’s highest-risk homes by 64 per cent and prevented an estimated $1.26 million in fire losses. In 2013, HomeSafe received a 2013 Community Health and Safety Program Excellence Award from the International City/Country Management Association.

To determine the long-term impact of the HomeSafe program and its component fire-prevention initiatives, the study assessed 12 years of results, from 2008 to 2019, for frequency of fire incidents, residential fires, casualties, working smoke alarms, and contained fires.

The study considered the individual and aggregate results from the three phases of the program, all of which included door-to-door visits providing fire safety information and offers of free smoke alarm installations and inspections, and verification of smoke alarms during fire incidents or other residential interactions such as medical calls for service. The three phases were:

  • 2008-2010, which and targeted in identified fire hotspots with door-to-door visits by firefighters, reaching 18,757 households,
  • 2011-2017, which added new high-risk areas at-risk households and included door-to-door visits by firefighters as well as community outreach including property tax lineups and food bank users, reaching 91,799 households, and
  • 2018-2019, which expanded to new at-risk areas and used volunteers for door-to-door contacts, home visits and telemarketing phone calls, reaching 9,793 households.

Overall, the findings showed that throughout the 12-year period, HomeSafe increased the presence of working smoke alarms in the City by 80 per cent, improved the percentage of fires confined to the source by 94 per cent, decreased fire rates by 80 per cent and reduced fire casualties by more than 40 per cent.

Based on the study results, the three most effective interventions proved to be household visits by firefighters, free smoke alarm inspections and installations upon request, and validation of smoke alarms by fire crews during fires other or residential interactions such as medical calls for service.

The study also reinforced the value of direct personal contact by fire personnel or a volunteer in enhancing residents’ knowledge and ensuring the presence of working smoke alarms. Simply leaving information packages or door hangers at homes without personal contact was not effective, and not enough information is available to determine the efficacy of telemarketing calls.

The results highlighted the importance of:

  • Community engagement and municipal government support to fund and implement programs over the long term,
  • Personal contact and dialogue between fire service representatives and residents,
  • Collecting and using updated data to continually assess and target new high-risk areas,
  • Ongoing monitoring, evaluation, adjustment, and re-treatment for long-term effectiveness, and
  • Implementing a program large enough to target a sizeable proportion of the targeted at-risk population.

“There is much to learn from the successes of the HomeSafe program and its evidence-based approach,” B.C. Fire Commissioner Brian Godlonton said. “This new study lays out a roadmap for how a community can deliver fire safety education with long-term results, using either firefighters or volunteers to create those important touchpoints with residents.”

Steps in the Right Direction

Both B.C. and Ontario have committed this year to taking action on smoke alarm awareness. The B.C. government announced an investment of $1.6 million on a new social marketing and education campaign on smoke alarm use and fire prevention. Ontario has launched a Saved By the Beep campaign and its first Test Your Smoke Alarm Day on Sept. 28.

The Council of Canadian Fire Marshalls and Fire Commissioners is also promoting Sept. 28 as a national day for smoke alarm testing.

As well, new tools are coming onstream to give Canadian communities access to the kind of targeted data that drives the success of HomeSafe in the City of Surrey.

As reported in Fire Fighting in Canada in December 2022, several B.C. fire departments are testing an online community fire risk reduction dashboard through a partnership between the OFC and StatsCan. The dashboard transforms fire data and other statistics into maps that identify neighborhood risk levels based on population characteristics, fire incident rates, injuries, deaths and smoke alarm status.

Ontario has also kicked off a similar project with StatsCan. Collection of the necessary fire, community and demographic data to inform the dashboard is now under way and expects this application to be available by the end of September 2023.

“The recent tragic increase in residential fire fatalities in our province is very concerning,” said Ontario Fire Marshal Jon Pegg. “We need to do more to get the message out about working smoke alarms, and we’re moving forward with interventions that have proven to be effective elsewhere in Canada and around the world.”

Also positive is a growing understanding that smoke alarm education and outreach must be scheduled, monitored for effectiveness and retention, adjusted as necessary, and reapplied over time. This is due to cognitive factors such as the “knowing-doing gap” – the disconnect between knowledge and performance – and the “wear-off effect” – in which the benefits of the training wear off over time.

An example of the need for sustained long-term interventions is the British Columbia Smoke Alarm Movement launched in 2012 that included targeted education and installation of 61,000 free smoke alarms. After significant initial successes, the impact of the campaign waned over the years, with fire rates and deaths gradually creeping upward.

When announcing its upcoming campaign, the B.C. government noted that working smoke alarms were only present at 45 per cent of the reported residential structure fires in 2022.

“Public fire safety education is not one-and-done,” notes one of the report authors Joseph Clare, a professor at University of Western Australia who has a PhD in Applied Cognitive Psychology and has studied the wear-off effect. “The treatments you do today will wear off over time. As you develop and implement new strategies, it’s critical to include a mechanism to monitor, measure, adjust and reapply on a repeated basis to achieve sustainable results.”

This enhanced knowledge of human behaviour, when combined with the knowledge provided by HomeSafe , the renewed focus on working smoke alarms across the country and the potential for the application of Fire Community Fire Risk Reduction Dash Boards to provide program precision as deployed in B.C and Ontario , have great potential for reducing the devastating and preventable toll of fires on Canadian lives and property.

“Community Fire Risk Reduction: Longitudinal Assessment for HomeSafe Fire Prevention Program in Canada” is available for free download from here.

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Larry Thomas is the Fire Chief for the City of Surrey B.C. and an Executive Chief Fire Officer, ECFO and Chartered Manager, C. Mgr.

Samar Al-Hajj is the founding director for the Middle East and North Africa Program for Advanced Injury Research.

Len Garis is director of research for the National Indigenous Fire Safety Council, Fire Chief (ret) City of Surrey B.C, and associate scientist emeritus with the B.C. Injury Research and Prevention Unit, Adjunct Professor at the School of Culture, Media and Society, University of the Fraser Valley. 

Ian Pike is the director of the British Columbia Injury Research and Prevention Unit and co-executive director for the Community Against Preventable Injuries, Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at UBC.


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