Fires and injuries treble in 30 years

FIRES and injuries from them more than trebled between 1960 and 1990, while the number of deaths in that period rose from 430 to 740 a year, according to the National Audit Office.

Despite the increase, only pounds 2m was spent on fire-prevention publicity last year, it says, less than a third of the sum that was spent on crime prevention, even though insurance losses from fire match those from crime, burglary and theft, and are on an upward trend at about pounds 1bn a year.

In a report on fire prevention published yesterday, the NAO says that National Health Service costs for treating 11,000 burns cases a year - up from 3,000 in 1960 - may be at least pounds 40m, not counting treatment for smoke inhalation, the commonest fire injury.

Britain has a higher fire-death rate than many developed countries, and the upward trend contrasts with falling death rates for most other types of accident.

Sixty per cent of deaths and injuries occur in the home, the report says. But, while the campaign to fit home smoke alarms has come close to hitting its 55 per cent target, and fire deaths at home, though not casualties, have fallen, those most at risk, including the elderly, are least likely to buy alarms. Those over 80 are eight times more likely to die in a fire than people aged 5 to 64, and free or cut-price distribution of smoke alarms should be considered, the NAO says.

There are big and rising backlogs of three to four years for the fire services as a whole in certifying premises - with 21,000 applications outstanding at the end of 1990. The situation was worst in the metropolitan authorities Hertfordshire and Dorset, while in London it will take an estimated 57 man years to clear them, and at least a quarter of fire brigades are not meeting their planned re-inspection programmes.

The workload in removing Crown immunity from NHS premises has also proved far bigger than expected, with less than a third of premises given fire certificates so far, while the backlog of inspection of Crown premises is rising with almost half of premises uncertified.

In London and the South-east, 179 applications for fire certificates have been outstanding for more than a decade, 48 of them since 1964.

Plans agreed in 1988 to boost the number of Crown inspectors from 2 to 38 saw only 25 in post by last year, while cuts in travel and subsistence budgets mean inspectors have to sit in offices rather than inspect premises.

The NAO says that firm Home Office targets for clearing backlogs are needed, with more exemptions granted for low-risk premises, while fire brigades say that many high-risk premises, including houses in multiple occupation and residential homes, are excluded from inspection.

The NAO also attacks Home Office delays: it took 11 years after the 1979 Manchester Woolworth's fire in which nine people died to complete research showing sprinklers saved lives, with guidance still not issued, while guidelines on precautions in places of public entertainment were drafted in 1983 but were issued only in 1990.

Fire Prevention in England and Wales; National Audit Office; HMSO; pounds 7.15.