Taking the Fire Incident Rate to Zero

What if you had a way of reducing cooktop fires from 138 in a year to zero?  Does that sound unrealistic to you?  For any reasonable person who has spent years in the prevention field, it may indeed sound like fantasy.  Except it really happened.

The Worcester (MA) Fire Department has been working on a prevention project for some years now, led by Lieutenant Annie Pickett.  They have been working with the Worcester Housing Authority (WHA) since learning that 759 apartments in four buildings were generating about 12 stovetop fires per month, which caused about $223,000 in direct property damage in 2015.  The residents were all elderly and all low income, and 15% had no income at all.  Most of the residents suffered from some kind of physical mobility or mental disabilities. And, according to Pickett, the relationship between the fire department and the WHA was not exactly rock solid.

I can imagine the challenges here.  Responding to low income property fire calls regularly would create stress all the way around.  The high fire risk to residents and property is, of course, primary.  But a positive relationship with the people who provide housing for these residents is also important and can create real barriers if not managed properly regardless of the risks.  Walking in with an enforcement “hammer” is not always the best solution to a problem.

Worcester Fire began to build on its community risk assessment with research on possible solutions to this type of fire problem.  What it found was a product that limited the temperature of the heating element on the coil top stoves.  I’ve written about this type of product in the past.  This one is produced by a company called Pioneering Technology, and there have been several advances in the product line since I first wrote about it years ago.

The technology basically uses a cast iron plate with temperature limiting controls (TLC) to fluctuate the cooking temperature of the plate so that it will not ignite a pan with cooking oil, even when left on the highest setting.  The TLC device will regulate the element heat down and up, preventing the oil from reaching ignition temperature while allowing cooking to continue.  Or while someone walks away from the cooking.  Or falls asleep.

Creating this kind of safety tool is challenging because it requires a little different cooking habits than a regular coil top stove.  That has in some cases turned off end users in similar situations, because they didn’t like the cooking changes.  That always seemed a manageable problem for me, as we must all cook differently whether we are using an electric coil top, a ceramic cook top, or a gas stove.  You can still cook everything; you just need to do it a little differently.

So, the challenge here is not just changing out technology that prevents fires but having that technology accepted by residents and property managers.  That is the additional element Worcester added that I thought was brilliant.  It does no good to install a safety feature if people disable it.  Smoke alarms come to mind, but that’s another article.

The fire department in this case trained teams to visit each of the four high-rise buildings they selected as highest risk for about 25 weeks.  This would be a major undertaking for any department, and I credit Worcester for having the foresight to take these proactive steps and put the necessary resources into the program.  Personnel visited 820 apartments and installed 800 TLC burner sets (3,200 burners total).  The replacement is a simple plug and play swap—taking out the existing coil top and replacing it with the cast iron TLC device.  That change-out effort translated to about 33 burner sets per week.

Worcester Fire also updated its educational materials, adding the TLC technology to it as well as instructions on how to use the devices properly. Personnel also created protocols to manage/track the installations and to collect the data and analyze that and the loss data over the course of the program.  In the 10 months following the initial project, there were zero fires in protected properties and, important to note, no complaints from residents.  Members’ planning allowed them to use grant savings to purchase the TLC devices and to apply for other grants to expand to other WFA properties, which they’re in the process of doing.

I think the technology speaks for itself, but the combination of an educational campaign to teach residents about other safety issues and how the technology works helped tremendously.  Partnering with the housing authority to create and manage the program and communicating regularly with residents helped establish a long-term relationship that is key in allowing them to expand their efforts.

There are changes to the testing requirements for electric coil top stoves (UL858) that require they not start fires, and we’ll soon see other manufacturers producing this type of device.  It all has the potential to reduce our nation’s fire problem significantly.  And the Worcester Fire Department has shown us a clear path forward.  For more on the program, e-mail Lt. Pickett at picetta@worcesterma.gov.

And meanwhile, ask yourself this:  When was the last time you heard about a fire prevention program taking the fire incident rate to zero?


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