House fires

Australia was rocked by the deaths of 11 people from 2 families who perished in 1 house fire in a Brisbane suburb in August 2011. Just months after the three-year anniversary, the Coroner currently has the tasks of

(1) The findings required by s.45(2) of the Coroners Act 2003; namely the identity of the deceased persons, when, where and how they died and what caused their deaths.

(2) The circumstances surrounding the deaths, particularly the cause of the fire and any factors that may have prevented the deceased persons from escaping the fire or otherwise contributed to their deaths.

(3) Whether any accommodation issues contributed to the circumstances in which the deaths occurred.

(4) Any actions that may be taken to help prevent deaths in similar circumstances happening in the future.

I and many others look forward to hearing the final determination, particularly regarding point 4 which can help us in our injury prevention efforts.

Smoke alarms are fundamental for occupant protection – depending on the alarm type, they alert occupant(s) to the presence of smoke and/or flame, allowing occupant(s) time to exit the premises safely. This is premised on smoke alarms being in good, reliable, working order, and our family recently upgraded a number of detectors throughout our home which we were concerned had reached their use-by-date. A recent Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health article summarises the findings efficacy of a theory-based health education intervention which aimed to improve the rates of functioning smoke alarms in homes, with intervention homes containing more working smoke alarms.

I was interested to note in the recent news media article, however, that it was suggested that rather than exiting safely and in a timely fashion, occupant(s) may have spent time trying to extinguish the flames, thus preventing the safe and timely exit of all occupants. I had not previously considered that this behaviour may be an added ‘house fire risk’. Given his recent – albeit limited – workplace fire warden training, my husband has waxed lyrical regarding how confident he is that he would be able to extinguish any house fire using our extinguishers and (for cooking-related fires) a fire blanket. I think we shall be reconsidering this plan!

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