In 2008, fires caused more than $15.5 billion in direct property loss, but overall, the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) reported a decline in fire losses from the previous year. Fires in residential properties accounted for $8.6 billion. These statistics are according to the recently released report “U.S. Fire Loss in the United States in 2008.”

Fire departments responded to an estimated 1.5 million fires in 2008, a decrease of 6.8 percent from the year before. A total of 515,000 fires occurred in structures, a decrease of 2.9 percent; 403,000 (78 percent) of all structure fires occurred in residential properties. In addition, the NFPA reported that between 2003–2006,40 percent of all home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with no smoke alarms, according to a new report, “Smoke Alarms in U.S. Home Fires.”

“Smoke alarms are one of the greatest fire protection devices of our time and have significantly contributed to the decline in home fire fatalities since the late ’70s,” said James M. Shannon, NFPA president. “But it’s not enough to randomly put up one smoke alarm and forget about it. In addition to placing smoke alarms in recommended areas, they must be kept in good working order, which includes testing them monthly, changing batteries at least once a year and making sure that they are not disconnected.”

According to NFPA statistics, working smoke alarms cut the risk of dying in reported home structure fires in half. The 2007 edition of NFPA 72, the National Fire Alarm Code, requires smoke alarms in every bedroom, outside each sleeping area and on every level. They should also be interconnected so that when one sounds, they all sound.

According to the report, smoke alarm failures usually result from missing, disconnected or dead batteries, and in one-fifth of all homes with smoke alarms, none were working. Most homes still have smoke alarms powered by batteries only, and people 55 or older were more likely to have smoke alarms that were more than 10 years old, which should be replaced.

The NFPA is maintaining the attitude that every fire death is preventable and, therefore, unacceptable. Approximately 3,000 people a year die in home fires.

“This report reinforces the importance of smoke alarms in saving lives and identifies the way to further reduce that number through the installation of home fire sprinklers,” Shannon said. “It is not acceptable to say 3,000 deaths are OK when we know we can do better.”