NEW YORK ( – A nationwide Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) study of Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, dating 1989 to 1998, determined that Black children under age 5 in Maryland and Illinois are four times more likely to die in a house fire. The federal agency said that, in the decade that covered their study, fires and burns were the leading cause of unintentional deaths of Black children in the United States.

The June 30 report said Black children under age 5 in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania were three times as likely as the rest of the Black population in those states to die in a residential fire. In the decade covered in the report, 164 Black children died in home fires in New York; 64 died in New Jersey; and 145 died in Pennsylvania.

In responding to the report, the head of the U.S. Fire Administration said in most cases these deaths could have been avoided. Lt. Paul Washington, president of the VULCANS, a Black firefighters organization in New York City, said he isn’t surprised that the city leads in child fire deaths. He said that no one has yet to come up with a credible answer to why there are so many deaths in the city, but added that the issues of poverty played a major role.


“We, as firemen, take any death in a fire seriously, but when a child dies, it seems to hit fire service people the hardest,” Lt. Washington said. “I have been on the scene several times when a child has been brought out of a burning building dead and, I won’t lie to you, I cannot look at that child.”

He said that he believes that the NYC Fire Department must use their vast resources to get the message of fire prevention out to the public. “The VULCANS have always made fire prevention and safety in the Black community a priority issue,” he noted.

Cleveland Fire Department Battalion Chief John J. Brewington, president of the International Association of Black Fire Fighters (IABFF), agrees that fire prevention is the key to saving Black babies and toddlers from home fires. He said the IABFF has signed on to the national campaign by FEMA called “Prepare, Practice and Prevent the Unthinkable.”

“We want to get the message out to install smoke alarms, purchase safety strong lighters and matches, and develop a fire escape plan,” Chief Brewington said.

“I have been in fire service for 24 years, and I still remember my ‘first working fire’, when I had to look into the eyes of a Black father who had just learned that his three children had died in the fire,” he recalled. From that moment on, he made fire prevention a personal crusade.

“I bet you didn’t know that the U.S. leads all industrialized nations in fire deaths,” Chief Brewington pointed out.

The U.S. Fire Administration’s “Facts on Fire” states that, in 2001, the U.S. fire rate death toll, not including 9-11, was 13.4 deaths per one million persons. Blacks, although only 13 percent of the U.S. population, were 26 percent of the deaths by fire. According to a National Fire Prevention Association report also in 2001, it was noted that 90 percent of U.S. homes have at least “one” fire alarm. Their report also said that in the last 10 years there had been an increase of fires that occurred in homes with a non-functioning alarm. In its conclusion, the report said that 39 percent of residential fires and 52 percent of residential fire fatalities occur in homes with no smoke alarm.

Rudolph Muhammad, who works in the NYC Emergency Medical Service, urges people not to disarm their fire alarm because it keeps going off when they burn food.

“People must understand that they will die in a fire if they are not prepared,” he stressed.

“It’s funny that you would ask me about my fire alarm,” said Jayyidah Clarke. The Staten Island mother of two said her son had set off their alarm the day before because of something he was cooking on the stove.

“I realize how important it is to keep fresh batteries in the alarm. We do not have a fire extinguisher, but we do have a fire escape plan,” she said.

Deborah Khaliq lives in a Harlem apartment building with her two daughters. She has fire extinguishers, working fire alarms and a fire escape plan.

“I live on the fifth floor in my building in the back, so we know that it would be difficult for us to escape in case of fire, so I must do everything to have my family prepared,” she explained.

Fire officials and city officials throughout the nation seem ready to write off our children. That is why we are having the debates locally about using resources for fire prevention, Chief Brewington stated. “But, now that the federal government is involved, we should see some movement,” he stressed. He also stressed the importance of Black people taking ownership of the fire prevention issue.

“It is our children that are dying disproportionately to their numbers in the population,” Chief Brewington insisted.

Brooklyn Democratic Councilwoman Yvette Clarke agrees with Chief Brewington. “I think that the campaign is a great idea and long overdue,” said Councilwoman Clarke, who chairs the council’s Fire and Criminal Justice Services Committee.

“It is ironic that the federal government has undertaken this mission,” she added, because the city public health and fire departments had “failed” to get the resources to communities of color for fire education.