The United States has a fire-incidence rate that is more than double that of European nations and is the fifth-highest of all industrial nations. Roughly 1.45 million fires are reported annually in the U.S., which equates to one every 22 seconds. If those figures aren’t somber enough, consider this: someone is injured in a fire every 31 minutes and killed every 158 minutes.

These statistics were shared last week in the session “Why people die in fires,” presented at the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch conference in Orlando. According to the presenters — Mike Thompson, a battalion chief with the Rapid City (S.D.) Department of Fire & Emergency Services, and Gary Galasso, a battalion chief with the San Jose (Calif.) Fire Department — many injuries and deaths occur because victims fail to grasp the seriousness of their predicaments or make poor decisions fueled by stress and/or a herd mentality.

One of the reasons that victims underestimate the danger they’re in is because what they know about structure fires generally is learned through movies, according to Thompson, who used the movie Backdraft to illustrate his point.

“It’s a great movie, but it’s totally inaccurate,” Thompson said. “In a real fire, you can’t see a thing, temperatures exceed a thousand degrees and if you take your mask off, you’re dead. Because of movies like this, people think that they can survive a fire — and that’s wrong.”

Thompson added that when laypeople encounter the real deal, they usually are surprised by the intensity of the smoke and heat. He shared an anecdote of sprinkler demonstrations he has witnessed over the years.

“Usually people try to get as close as they can; I’ve seen them push the tape [barrier] in by three or four feet,” Thompson said. “Then, when the fire is cranked up it’s like, ‘Whoa! I didn’t know it was like that.’”

Thompson cited a National Institute of Standards and Technology study that indicated that half of all adults killed in fires could have evacuated safely, but didn’t. Sometimes they go back into the structure to retrieve a beloved pet or valued possession. “A surprising number of people go back into the fire after they initially escaped,” he said. Sometimes it’s because they try to extinguish the fire themselves.

But those merely are symptoms, according to Thompson. The root cause is that they underestimate the dangers associated with a structure fire. “They think that the fire department is going to get there shortly. What they don’t realize is that a fire can consume a room in a couple of minutes,” he said.

Thompson described two incidents that clearly illustrate this point. In 1977, a fire broke out at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky. The incident is the third-deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history with 165 fatalities. Many of the club’s patrons failed to evacuate after being told to do so. “One of the club’s staff jumped onto the stage to give the warning, and some people thought that it was part of the comedy routine,” Thompson said. “Many people died sitting in their chairs. It was a very fast-moving fire.” Another fast-moving fire occurred at The Station nightclub in West Warrick, R.I., in 2003 — the fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in the nation’s history with 100 fatalities — which broke out after a band’s pyrotechnics went awry. The blaze was so fast-moving, according to Thompson, that the first-due unit arrived roughly 5½ minutes after the alarm was sounded and already had a mass-casualty incident on its hands.

Not every fire is as fast-moving as these, but every fire creates stress among its victims, and stress makes people do stupid things, according to Galasso. “It not only diminishes your ability to make good decisions, but it also narrows your vision — literally. That’s where the term ‘tunnel vision’ comes from,” he said.

Exacerbating the problems created by stress is the fact that humans tend to exhibit a herd mentality which becomes more pronounced when they encounter unfamiliar situations. “We’re going to do whatever the crowd does — even if it’s the wrong thing,” Thompson said.

Ideally, training would overcome these factors — “If you’re going to survive, you have to plan ahead,” Galasso said — but few laypeople experience such training to the degree needed for them to act instinctively in a life-threatening situation. So, telecommunicators have to intervene. “They have to give the right directions and instructions,” Galasso said. “They have the responsibility to keep a mother whose baby is trapped in a fire from going back into the building.”

To that end, Thompson and Galasso offered the following tips:

  • Laypeople don’t know what to do instinctively, so you have to tell them if you want to save their lives. Give them specific instructions, e.g., don’t open any windows because the influx of oxygen will cause the fire to spread faster and intensify.
  • Calm them down by telling them that help is on the way. But above all, instruct them not to reenter the building. People do so for many reasons — and they die.
  • Identify where they are in the structure — that information is critical to firefighters finding them quicker.
  • Keep them on the line. You need to be able to tell them what to do next.
  • Most importantly, follow departmental protocol. Telecommunicators endure stress too, and protocols are designed to ensure that vital information is obtained from, and received by, the victim.