A one-year-old boy died in an apartment fire in Crest Hill on April 16, 2016.

Less than four months into 2016, Illinois has already experienced five youth fire deaths in residential buildings, only one less than the total for all of 2015. Three of the most recent youth fire deaths occurred in the last week. A one-year-old Crest Hill boy died in an apartment fire on April 16 and two- and four-year-old Kankakee boys died together in an apartment fire on April 13. The fire deaths in Kankakee also account for one of four multiple-fatality residential fires in 2016, which equals the total of such fires from 2015. The total number of residential fire deaths in Illinois has now reached 33 for the year.

“Proven by these recent fires, young children are at highest risk in fires, along with elderly and those with mobility issues,” says Tom Lia, executive director of the nonprofit Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board, “These surges in young fire victims and multiple-fatality fires early in the year are a sign that fire safety education and prevention efforts need to be increased now, rather than waiting until the usual push during Fire Prevention Week in October. Fire officials need find ways to get into schools to educate children more often. There are also other beneficial programs that involve firefighters going door to door with free smoke alarms and offering to do home safety surveys.”

In addition, Lia notes that fire and elected officials need to consider updating their communities’ building and fire codes and ordinances to reflect measures present in the national model codes. Current model codes from the International Code Council and National Fire Protection Association require fire sprinklers in all new construction residential buildings due to their ability to control or extinguish fires when they are still small and prevent the spread of deadly smoke.

The case for fire sprinklers in the codes is evident in studies from the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) that prove the enhanced risk of fire in today’s newer homes. According to the studies, when exposed to fire, lightweight materials in newer homes, such as engineered floor systems, along with open construction designs can create more dangerous conditions faster and fail sooner compared to older dimensional lumber systems. Airtight construction and energy-conserving building materials such as double-glazed (vinyl) windows, synthetic insulation materials and foam sheathing help fires spread faster. Also, contents of homes — polyurethane foam-filled furniture and other synthetic objects such as carpet and electronics — can cause flashover and emit toxic smoke.

“Fire is everyone’s fight — from firefighters who respond to fires and educate the public about fire safety to elected officials who adopt progressive codes to homeowners who can practice better fire prevention,” says Lia.