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Human Behavior in Home Fires



Stanley W. Gilbert


Casualties in fires--and in particular, deaths--are tail events. The average fire does not cause deaths or injuries. There is increasing evidence that the people susceptible to dying in fires are a specific subset of the people in homes. It seems likely that the same holds true of the fire and the environment as well. That is, that it is a suite of circumstances that produce deaths (and to a lesser extent injuries) in fires. While there has been a lot of valuable work aimed at identifying characteristics associated with deaths in fire, there has been little aimed at identifying those suites of conditions that produce fire deaths. One that can be readily identified is a cigarette fire ignited on or in the immediate vicinity of a person who is frail. Other suites of circumstances are less clear. There are a number of observations that can be made based on the research regarding fire in domestic environments. The large majority of fires are not reported to the fire department, and evidence suggests that the majority of those fires are put out by the people on site. This occurs in spite of the frequent admonition to "Get out, Stay out...." \citethompson_2015}. It is a reminder that people do not necessarily always act in accordance with fire-safety messaging. The typical engineering approach to fire design--ASET/RSET--does not explicitly capture all observed behaviors in domestic fires. The basic assumption of the approach is that people react to a fire by evacuating, and that the time to evacuate is mostly independent of the fire. But these assumptions break down for domestic fires. A different approach is warranted for fire design for domestic spaces.
Technical Note (NIST TN) - 2191
Report Number


Fire, Home Fires, Human Behavior


Gilbert, S. (2021), Human Behavior in Home Fires, Technical Note (NIST TN), National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD, [online],, (Accessed May 30, 2024)


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Created November 9, 2021, Updated November 29, 2022