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Heavy drinkers may die needlessly in house fires

People who drink heavily may increase their risk of dying in house fires that should otherwise have been escapable, a new study suggests.

A team led by Victoria University researcher, Professor Dorothy Bruck, looked at coroners' records for 95 fire victims and found 58 per cent had positive results on blood alcohol tests, often with very high alcohol levels.

Professor Bruck said few of those intoxicated victims had obstacles preventing their escape from the fire – like barred windows or an exit route that was blocked by the fire.  

The implication, she said, was that at least some intoxicated victims might have survived had they been roused in time.

"Most of the victims in the study were alone at the time of the fire, and many – including close to half of intoxicated victims – were asleep," Professor Bruck said. "It's possible that well-placed smoke detectors, or having other, sober people in the house, would have protected some."

But the biggest issue appeared to be the combination of heavy drinking and smoking. The study showed victims who had been drinking were about 4.5 times more likely to have died in fires that involved "smoking materials" like discarded cigarettes.

"A key message is that smoking and drinking together constitute a high-risk activity, even in your own home," Professor Bruck said.

Aside from not combining drinking and smoking, people can lessen their fire risks in other ways, like always having someone in the home that stays sober, she said.

She also recommended smoke detectors in bedrooms or living areas, rather than just hallways, even though smoke alarms are less effective at rousing people who've been drinking heavily.

"Our research has also shown that certain changes to improve the sound that smoke alarms make, and better alarm locations, may arouse more sleeping intoxicated people in the case of a fire," she said. "But experts don't know how loud smoke alarms, even with the improved signal, need to be to wake a person with very high blood alcohol levels."

Another potential way to prevent fire deaths is to use so-called fire-safe cigarettes, which self-extinguish if a smoker sets one down and forgets about it or falls asleep while smoking.

All of the fatalities in the current study were adults in Victorian house fires between 1998 and 2006. The high percentage of intoxicated victims (58 per cent) is consistent with what's been seen in studies from the United States, Canada and Europe.

The findings are published in the September issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.


Available for interview:

Professor Dorothy Bruck, lead researcher

School of Social Sciences and Psychology, Victoria University

(03) 9919 2158; 0428 139 884; [email protected]


Media contact:

Michael Quin, communications officer (research)

Marketing and Communications Department, Victoria University

(03) 9919 9491; 0431 815 409; [email protected]

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