Recent Tragedy Forcing Mississippi to Face Its Poor Fire Prevention Record

The nine fire deaths in Starkville on Dec. 28, including six children ages 6 and under, at the Academy Crossing apartment complex is the worst fatal fire to strike Mississippi in modern history and could cause the state to rise in new rankings from the U.S. Fire Administration.

The last rankings gave Mississippi the nation’s fourth worst fire death rate, trailing West Virginia, Tennessee and Kansas.

The 2009 numbers have not been compiled, but 3,320 civilian deaths in 2008 were fire related, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. The number of fire- and smoke-related deaths in Mississippi was 69, according to state Department of Health statistics.

“We’ve got to learn from a tragedy like this so that these nine lives won’t be for naught,” said Jeff Homan, president of the Mississippi Fire Chiefs Association. “We’ve got to say, ‘We won’t let this happen again.”‘

He said the lack of fire safety training and lack of emphasis on fire prevention are the main reasons Mississippi has ranked among the worst in the nation per capita in fire deaths.

“We’ve got to make some changes and bring prevention to the forefront,” he said. “The money spent on fire prevention is money well spent.”

New Mississippi laws should help, including “fire-safe” cigarettes, he said.

“If you’re not actively smoking the cigarette, it will go out. It’s less likely to cause a fire. That should help save lives.”

Smoking is the leading cause of fatal fires in the U.S., according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Another new law requires the reporting of all fire injuries and deaths in Mississippi to the state fire marshal’s office.

Such information will enable fire officials to better address problem areas, Homan said.

In recent years, 40 percent of home fire deaths took place in homes with no smoke detectors, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Another 23 percent of fire deaths took place where the smoke detector failed to operate for various reasons, including the battery being dead or disconnected. A woman in the same Starkville apartment complex, Ramona Doss, said her smoke detector hasn’t worked since she moved in nearly a year ago.

In 37 percent of the cases, the smoke detector did work, but the people died anyway.

The Starkville apartment where the nine people died had a smoke alarm, but fire investigators cannot tell if it was working. The cause of the fire has not been determined.

Jay Fleming, deputy chief at the Boston Fire Department, said he believes one reason some of these people died with smoke detectors inside their homes is because of the kind of smoke detectors they had.

Two types of smoke detectors are available: photoelectric and ionization.

The photoelectric smoke detector uses a light in the sensing chamber. When combustible products enter the chamber, they scatter the light beam, triggering the alarm.

The ionization smoke detector uses a small amount of radioactive material to ionize air in the sensing chamber. When combustible products enter the chamber, the conductivity flow is reduced, triggering the alarm.

Because photoelectric detectors respond more quickly to smoldering fires, some experts have suggested photoelectric models for living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens, where smoldering fires can start and spread.

Because ionization detectors respond more quickly to flaming fires with smaller combustion particles, some experts suggest those models for rooms that house highly combustible materials that can create flaming fires.

“The only time ionization provides a benefit is a nonresidential setting,” Fleming said. “It’s almost criminal the public isn’t aware of this.”

The vast majority of homes and apartments are now outfitted with ionization models.

The ionization smoke detector won’t sound the alarm until the smoldering fire begins to flame up, Fleming said. “It can only detect smoke from a flaming fire.”

He said photoelectric models – slightly more expensive than their ionization counterparts – may give people an additional half hour to get out of a burning home when the fire is smoldering.

Ionization smoke detectors also suffer from more “nuisance” alarms, such as when food is cooking in the kitchen, he said. That prompts some people to remove the batteries and render detectors useless, he said.

More than 20 percent of deaths occur with disabled smoke detectors, he said. “That’s 600 people a year whose lives could be saved.”

Massachusetts and Vermont have changed building codes to require photoelectric smoke detectors in new construction.

The National Fire Prevention Association, which has created a task force to study the matter, is recommending people use both kinds of smoke detectors to be safe.

“The main thing is to have a smoke detector that works,” Homan said.

People should check the batteries in their smoke detectors twice a year, he said, “and we like to say change your batteries when you change your clocks.”

What happens is people get complacent, he said.

“How long has it been since you checked the batteries in your smoke alarms? A curling iron and a microwave oven can both cause fires. We take for granted that they’re fail-safe 99.9 percent of the time, and it creates a false sense of security.”

Families need to develop escape plans and practice them, he said.

“Have a central meeting point at the mailbox or some other place.”

He said it’s now possible to equip each new house with a residential water sprinkler system that would cost $1 or $1.50 a square foot.

Funding fire prevention and safety is worth the money spent, he said.

“Somebody has to say, ‘Enough is enough. We’re losing people.’ The man is the king of his castle, but the problem is the king is dying in his own house because of his stupidity.”

People may complain about such an expense, he said, but “I believe the city of Starkville could collect millions of dollars right now if it would bring those nine people back.”