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Children under 10 more likely to die in home fires: death review panel

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March 16, 2016 - 6:00 AM

VANCOUVER - Investigators believe the child was asleep when a fire started in the bedroom.

A sibling had accidentally set fire to a mattress while playing with matches, and alerted their parents by screaming. But the youngest in the home was not awakened. Officials later determined the smoke alarm didn't work.

The youngster, whose identity is concealed for privacy, was one of 34 children whose accidental deaths in residential fires is examined in a new B.C. Coroners Service report.

The death-review panel determined that children under 10 years old were far more likely to die in residential fires than those between ages 11 and 18, and makes recommendations to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

The panel looked at 22 separate incidents that occurred between 2005 and 2014, killing an equal number of boys and girls.

"They're not numbers. These are young children who perish in fires," said Michael Egilson, who heads the Child Death Review Unit.

"It's just a horrible thing to have happen in a community at large."

Children are hospitalized at a rate of about 20 per cent greater than the fatalities, he added.

The review found only eight homes in the 22 fires has functional smoke alarms.

It found electrical issues caused 30 per cent of the fires, lighter or match play caused 20 per cent, open flames such as barbecue and candles caused 20 per cent, and smoldering cigarettes caused another 10 per cent. Several causes could not be established.

The risk factors included substandard and overcrowded housing, a lower level of supervision by adults and homes where smoking was present, according to the report.

"I personally don't think these recommendations are going to tackle issues like poverty," said Egilson.

But they can prevent some deaths down the road, he said.

"Had there been working smoke alarms in each of these houses, had adequate fire-prevention education gone on, there's a pretty good likelihood that we would have seen fewer fatalities."

The panel said the majority of deaths could have been prevented through proper cigarette disposal, by keeping lighters and matches out of reach, ensuring smoke alarms worked, and protecting homes with a residential sprinkler system.

The report made three broad recommendations, including increasing education programs for children, improving access to smoke detectors through community agencies and more information sharing between B.C.'s approximately 350 fire departments.

The panel also urged the provincial government to investigate the feasibility of mandating sprinkler system installation in new homes under the B.C. building code.

B.C.'s fire code requires smoke alarms be installed outside of sleeping areas and family residences, for all houses and not just new builds.

"I'm quite hopeful that these are some pragmatic steps that will make things better than they currently are," Egilson said.

The panel of 19 experts gathered for one day in May 2015. The review cost about $3,000.

Fires in homes are the fifth leading cause of accidental death in children in B.C.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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