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Minitab illustrates the need for fire safety

Airmen from the 18th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Department conduct training at the Silver Flag area of Kadena Air Base, Japan, Dec. 2 during Beverly High 09-01, a local operational readiness exercise to test the readiness of Kadena's 18th Wing Airmen. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Rey Ramon)The January/February issue of Men’s Health includes an article by Michael Perry with photographs by Eric Ogden titled “Voices from the Flames.” The article contains a lot of statistics that I didn’t know about fires in contemporary America. As a statistician, I like articles with statistics. While this article included a satisfying number of statistics, graphs that would make them easy to understand were absent. So in the interests of communicating the importance of fire safety, I thought I’d take a minute to make some graphs myself, inspired by some of the statistics that Perry uses. Communicating the meaning of statistics is one of the powerful purposes of Minitab.

Gender of Americans Who Die in Residential Fires

Perry reminds his target readers, presumably mostly men, that “of the nearly 2,500 Americans who die in residential fires every year, 57% are male.” That statistic is calculated from the National Fire Incident Reporting System database. Of course, that information isn’t very meaningful without a little bit more context. If 57% of Americans are male, then it wouldn’t  be surprising that 57% of civilian fire fatalities are male. However, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Quick Facts, in 2012 the bureau estimated that 50.8% of Americans are female. Here’s what that looks like:   

Gener in American population and in civilian fire deaths in America

See how the bars are close in height for the population, but not for civilian fire deaths? That suggests that there’s a relationship between gender that doesn’t bode well for those of us with Y chromosomes.

Deaths and Fire Sources

Perry’s article reports that “Candle fires kill 166 people a year,” which is not an insignificant amount when you consider that that 166 is more than 1 in 20 of the approximately 2,500 Americans who die in fires each year. But it’s really interesting when you put that figure in the context of some more data about fire sources and deaths. Here’s what that looks like:

Some sources of fires that lead to fatalities

Candles are certainly a cause for concern. No one should play with candles or leave them unattended. But in terms of risk, smoking seems like it deserves greater consideration. While smoking leads to very few fires relative to other causes, those fires are among the most likely to lead to a fatality. (See links at the end of the article for the data I graphed.)

Get Out Fast

Perry’s article points out how much shorter the time people have to escape a residential fire has become. “’In 1970, your average escape time was around 17 minutes,’ says Larry McKenna, a USFA researcher. ‘Today, it’s as little as three minutes.’” By themselves, those numbers sound dire, but put them on a graph and you get a striking picture of the difference.

Time to escape has changed from 17 minutes to 3 minutes.

It never would have occurred to me that fire safety wouldn’t be a consideration in making modern furniture, but apparently fire safety’s fallen by the wayside in favor of other considerations.

Summary

It’s easy for me to behave as if fires can only happen in other people’s homes, and that only careless people are in real danger from fires. Then along comes an article in popular media that exposes my ignorance about what fires are really like in the contemporary America.

Let’s applaud Michael Perry for his use of statistics to draw attention to fire safety in his article. Even if you don’t read Perry’s article, I hope the Minitab graphs above will still inspire you to spend a few minutes with some of the reputable organizations on the Internet that promote fire safety:

Ready.gov

U.S. Fire Administration

National Fire Protection Association

Bonus

Prefer some less grim Minitab graphs? Check out some graphing tips that celebrate Valentine's Day with Minitab.

The image of the airmen from the 18th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Department training is by Tech. Sgt. Rey Ramon and is in the public domain.

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