If the fire service encouraged people to install smoke alarms and to improve their fire safety knowledge, the number of fire fatalities would drop dramatically, according to Westmeath chief fire officer Dave Stewart.
He said 82% of fire-related deaths occurred in the home, yet smoke alarms were only installed in 28%. Less than 50% of Irish households have a smoke alarm.
Mr Steward said the British Government’s Fire Safety Review had reduced fire fatalities in the home from 562 in 1997 to 486 last year. The number of smoke alarms in households has also increased from 9% in 1987 to 79% ten years later.
“Britain has a definite strategy to fire prevention. Unfortunately, in Ireland, the Fire Service is still organised around the need to respond to fires. Budgets are primarily based on the operational costs of calling out the fire brigade with little funds provided for fire prevention,” Mr Stewart said.
The US spends the majority of its fire budget on dealing with fires rather than preventing them. As a result, it had the highest rate of fire fatalities in the world in 1992 and in 2001, it had the second highest.
One fire officer said he believed smoke alarms were a vital part of fire prevention but called for domestic sprinkler systems to be introduced as well. Waterford County chief fire officer Tony McCarthy said the system would help save the increasing number of single people dying in fires.
“All the smoke alarms in the world won’t save you if you’re under the influence.
“The only way of saving lives is to use domestic sprinklers. And if you have to wait ten minutes for the fire brigade, the sprinkler will reduce the damage to your house,” he said.
A recent British fire review found that sprinkler systems are highly effective in reducing deaths from fires. However it said the cost of installing them would be too high.
The National Safety Council said smoke alarms were still a highly effective way of reducing fire deaths. All new houses are required to have smoke alarms connected to the main electricity supply but this only accounts for 1% of housing.
The houses which do have smoke alarms often have “their batteries robbed for a radio,” according to the chief executive, Pat Costello.