The socioeconomics of fire

While I will be posting many more blog entries analyzing the coverage of fatal fires, this might be the most important one. At least, I think so.

When I analyzed my semester’s-worth of Google Alerts for fatal fires on a macro scale, I began to form a realization that I probably already had at a subconscious level. Fire is a class issue. Mobile homes are frequently mentioned as sites of fires, and in general I just began to get the feeling that people of lower socioeconomic class were affected more frequently by fires. Makes sense, I thought. I’m probably not making any revolutionary realizations. There must be plenty of articles about this. Not exactly. In fact, I wasn’t able to find any.

It seems there is a huge void of journalistic articles talking about the socioeconomic factors of fires. It was easy to find a study from a non-journalistic institution, however. FEMA put out a study in 1997 titled “Socioeconomic Factors and the Incidence of Fire.” In it, I found that my hunch was correct: “Virtually every study of socioeconomic characteristics has shown that lower levels of
income are either directly or indirectly tied to an increased risk of fire,” the report read.

Many of the studies on this idea were conducted in the 1970s. One (Schaenman, et al) found that three factors greatly affect variations in the rate of fires: parental presence, poverty and under-education. Further, seven other factors explained these variations but to a lesser degree: good education, race, home ownership, adequate income, housing crowdedness, housing vacancy and age of housing structures.

These findings are logical. It would make sense that lower socioeconomic groupings would be more susceptible to fatal fires. Yet, this is seemingly ignored by the media. One of the most important duties for a journalist covering a traumatic event, it seems, is to contextualize the event. The journalist should let the readers know that rape is more likely to be committed by an acquaintance than a stranger in the bushes, that it is rare for actual panic to occur in traumatic scenarios. Then they should also let the readers know not only that a lack of smoke detectors increases the likelihood of fire death but also that fires are statistically more likely to occur at lower socioeconomic levels. The media can do a good job (sometimes) of explaining what causes a fire, but the causes of the causes are left out of print and off the air.

This is extremely frustrating. For one, contextualization is inherently important. I thought that there would at least be articles talking about the larger issue of fires in communities of lower socioeconomic standing, even if individual fire articles did not include that context. But even the big picture articles do not seem to exist.

This doesn’t give the reader a quick fix — oh, I should just be less poor so as to avoid fires! — like fire safety suggestions might, but it is important nonetheless. Giving this context, besides simply painting a more truthful picture, reminds readers that the dangers faced by communities at lower socioeconomic levels are real and life-threatening. Being poor doesn’t just mean having a cheaper cell phone and not being able to afford as nice of cars. Socioeconomics are matters of life and death, and by ignoring the correlation with fire, journalists risk inadvertently smoothing over the incredible influence that class can have in this country.

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