Illinois firefighters handled nearly 37% fewer structural fires in 2021 than just 10 years ago, but suburban fire chiefs say the dangers posed by those fires are greater than ever.
According to the Illinois State Fire Marshal’s Office, there were 5,831 residential or workplace fires last year, compared to 9,235 similarly rated fires in 2012. These types of Fires have been down for the past decade, but they’ve really gone down in 2020 and 2021, records show.
“It’s 100% pandemic related,” Naperville Fire Chief Dan Smith said. “People are at home all day, so they’re able to spot issues that are happening.”
Smith’s department averaged about 42 such structure fires each year from 2012 through 2021, according to fire marshal records. However, in 2021, the agency handled 31 structure fires, the fewest for a year during that time.
But as these types of structural fires have declined, fire officials say the dangers to occupants and firefighters have increased.
“Furniture and building materials in modern homes are now all synthetic, which burns faster and hotter,” said Libertyville Fire Chief Richard Carani. “It definitely changed the strategy for attacking a fire inside a building. In the past, firefighting was done indoors.”
Researchers from the scientific product safety organization UL have determined that the use of synthetic materials, largely petroleum-based, reduced evacuation time in the event of a fire by about 17 minutes ago. 40 years less than five minutes today.
Illinois averaged 137 fire-related deaths per year from 2013 to 2019, according to federal data from the US Fire Administration. However, the number of fire-related deaths in the last three years of this dataset was above average, peaking at 150 in 2018.
A video produced by the group’s Fire Safety Research Institute shows how quickly a fire in a room with synthetic furniture reaches conflagration – the point where a space is engulfed in flames – than a fire with natural materials.
“While there has been a steady decline in residential house fires, there has been a significant increase in fatalities associated with these house fires,” said Dwayne Sloan, director of principal engineers at UL. “UL can’t control what’s sold, but it can help with standards.”
One initiative UL helped establish recently was a regulation, starting next month, that requires upholstered furniture to carry flammability labeling.
Risk of cancer in firefighters
Because homes are built with more synthetic materials these days, they are more flammable, so firefighters must fight fires from the outside.
– Rick West | Staff photographer, March 2012
Another concern about the growing prevalence of synthetic materials is their toxicity when they burn, fire officials agreed.
“There are a lot of cancer initiatives going on in the fire departments these days because all of these by-products in furniture and building materials are very carcinogenic when ignited,” said the Bartlett Fire Chief William Gabrenya. “We’re starting to see firefighters with cancer rates 200 times the national average, so you have a lot of places that now require equipment decontamination after a fire.”
The emergency services of the canton of Hanover provide decontamination assistance to 13 departments in the suburbs. Executive Director Mike Crews, a former downstate fire chief, said the process is taking more time than cost.
“It took less than a year for the program to grow, and boy did it,” Crews said.
Firefighters stand on a tarp in their gear, then get cleaned with dish soap and brushes. They are finally hosed down and wiped with towels.
“We don’t want them going back in their trucks or going back to the station with this stuff on them because it gets all over the place and puts more people at risk,” Crews said.
Gabrenya said some departments need to equip firefighters with multiple sets of firefighting equipment because one set will need to be decontaminated while the firefighter remains on duty.
“There are a lot of things changing in the fire service because it’s more dangerous than ever,” he said.
It is becoming increasingly dangerous for firefighters to fight fires inside homes, due to the speed of the flames and the toxicity of the burning materials, so they tend to stay outside.
– BRIAN HILL | Staff photographer, December 2009
Many chiefs believe that continued fire safety education has helped reduce the risk of fires and fatalities.
“Much of the decline in building fires is related to education, code updates and product safety improvements,” Carani said. “You can also add smoke detectors and fire protection systems.”
Aurora Fire Department Battalion Chief Jim Rhodes said he hopes the numbers will continue to drop, but he doesn’t think that will be the case.
“In 22 years there has been no role model,” he said. “We’ve had 15 structure fires so far this year, which has already been a very, very busy year for us with other calls, but again that could completely slow down.”
Aurora averaged about 67 residential and commercial structure fires in the 10 years from 2012 to 2021, according to the fire marshal’s report, with 60 in 2021 compared to 100 in 2012. However, the fewest structural fires s were produced there in 2018, while only 37 were recorded.
Fire chiefs said the drop in fires is unlikely to translate into lower personnel costs or other costs.
“We may have a slow year of fires and be even busier than ever because structural fires are only a small part of what we do,” Smith said.
Medical calls for an ambulance are often the most common response from a fire department, but there are also hazmat cleanups, technical rescue assistance and other special details provided by fire departments, the chiefs said.
“The fires are tiny compared to the scale of what we’re doing these days,” Smith said.