ANNAPOLIS – Maryland fire deaths rose slightly last year but were still the second-lowest number since 1975, according to a report released Monday by the Maryland State Fire Marshal.
The 74 deaths caused by fires in 1997, while up from 62 the year before, were well below the five-year average of 85 fatalities and down from a high of 184 fire deaths reported in 1975.
Deputy State Fire Marshal W. Faron Taylor attributed the drop in deaths to the increased use of smoke detectors and to fire prevention education. He pointed to such programs as Operation Safe Home, which equips Eastern Shore homes with smoke detectors, and efforts to reduce fires in Baltimore City.
While smoke detectors were present in about 60 percent of the fatal structure fires, they only worked properly in 20 percent of those cases, said the report.
“It is clear that the widespread use of smoke detectors has made a great difference over the past 23 years, but we must continue to work toward the goal of having adequate smoke detection in every Maryland home,” said State Fire Marshal Rocco Gabriele in a written statement.
Despite the generally positive numbers, the number of children and the elderly killed in fires rose. Eighteen children under age 15 died in 1997, up from 11 the year before, while elderly deaths rose from 14 to 22.
The report said Maryland’s experience reflects a national trend, in which children and those over age 65 have been most vulnerable to fire.
Most fatal residential fires started in the living room or the bedroom, the report said, with careless smoking as the leading cause, followed by electrical malfunctions.
About 65 percent of the fire fatalities were men. About half of the fires started between midnight and 8 a.m., and more than half of the fire-related deaths occurred on a Saturday, Sunday or Monday.
January and March accounted for the most fire fatalities, with about 14 percent of the total each.
Baltimore continued to lead the state in fire deaths, with 24 last year. But, like the state, Baltimore officials said that was the second-lowest number of fire deaths and noted that their numbers have consistently been going down.
Baltimore City Fire Department spokesman Hector Torres said the city probably has the most fire deaths because it has the largest number of poor people, but it has been cutting the deaths by installing smoke detectors and heightening awareness.
“We think that it’s paying off dividends,” Torres said.
Dorchester County reported only one fire fatality in 1997 but its five-year death rate — the number of fire deaths per 100,000 residents in that time — was the highest in the state at 6.6. Six fire deaths in 1995 likely drove the county’s rate up. County emergency officials could not be reached last night for comment.
Seven counties did not report a fire death in 1997. One of those, Garrett County, has not reported one since 1993.
Brad Frantz, director of emergency management for Garrett County Fire and Rescue said the low number of fire deaths is because the county’s small population.
“I can’t honestly attribute it to anything we’re doing that other counties are not doing,” Frantz said.
Carroll County has not had any fire deaths in the last three years and has the state’s lowest fire death rate, at 0.1 deaths per 100,000 residents.
“We’ve just been fortunate, I guess,” said Mike Clapsaddle, shift supervisor of the Carroll County 911 Center.