Fire-related deaths in Ireland: HRB publishes new research

The first ever research paper by the Health Research Board (HRB) on fire deaths shows: Older people, single people, men and those living in rural areas are at higher risk of dying in residential fires. Alcohol is a factor in more than half of fatal fires in Ireland.

emergency service vehicle lights at night

There were 101 fires with 106 fire-related fatalities recorded in closed inquest cases between 2014-2016. This new research examines the circumstances around the deaths.

Darrin Morrissey, Chief Executive at the HRB says,

‘This new HRB research is designed to support the development of evidence-based policies to reduce the number of fire-related deaths in Ireland and increase awareness among those most at risk, especially older people and/or those living alone, and in rural locations'.

'This is the first time that data in relation to fire fatalities from all Coroner sites in Ireland has been analysed’, according to Seán Hogan, National Directorate for Fire and Emergency Management, Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.

‘Since the initiation of our community fire safety programmes, we have seen a significant and steady decline in the number of fire fatalities recorded in Ireland over the last 15 years – this decrease in large part can be attributed to the increase in fire safety awareness and the ownership of domestic smoke alarms. This welcome downward trend sees the number of fire fatalities in Ireland below a range of 6 per million of population which puts Ireland in the league of countries that have minimised fire deaths’. 

‘However, our work is ongoing, so we have been fortunate to leverage the expertise of HRB researchers, who already extract information from coronial files, to gain insight into the circumstances of Irish fire fatalities. We hope to continue working with the Health Research Board in order to use this learning to progress community fire safety, awareness and education initiatives with the aim of continuing to reduce the number of people who die as a result of fires in Ireland every year’.

Anne Doyle, Research Officer at the HRB, explains,

'In order to understand the circumstances of fire deaths in Ireland, we gathered data from Coroner’s files. This is a valuable source of data which helps give a more complete picture of the circumstances surrounding the fire. For example, it allows us to link toxicology results to the cause of death; which highlights that more than half of people who died in fires had alcohol in their blood’.

Key findings include:

Socio demographics
  • Older people (aged 65 years or older) are over-represented among fire fatalities in Ireland. More than one in every two people who died were aged 65 or older (55) despite this group comprising one in five of the population in Ireland.
  • More males (69) died as a result of fires than females (37).
  • Eighty of the fatalities were single persons, (separated, divorced and widowed).
  • The occupation was known for 67 of the fatalities, of these farmers and agricultural workers were over-represented accounting for one in five deaths despite census data showing three in every hundred people were farmers or agricultural workers.
Fire circumstances
  • Almost all fires occurred in a private dwelling (92).
  • Of the 101 fatal fires, there was an even geographical spread. However, more than half (57) occurred in a rural setting and the remainder (44) in an urban location. Given just over one in three people live in rural area, this group are over-represented.
  • The majority of those who died (73) were alone at the time of the fire.
  • Most fires started in the living room followed by bedroom and kitchen.
  • The most common time for fires occurring were midnight through to 01:59hrs.
  • Most fatal fires occurred over the weekend. Fridays and Sundays (16 each) were the most common days followed by Thursdays and Saturdays (14 each).
  • More fatal fires occurred during winter months with the highest number occurring during the month of November (13).
Alcohol and other drugs
  • Toxicology reports were available for the majority of those who died due to fires (91). Just over half of people who died in fires had alcohol in their blood. Almost two thirds (64%) of this group had a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of 160 mg/100ml (more than three times the legal driving limit) at which stage balance, coordination and possible loss of consciousness reduce ability to respond to fire.
  • 54 of those with alcohol recorded on their blood were 65 years of age or older.
  • Men were more likely to have alcohol in their system and were more likely to have a higher Blood Alcohol Concentration. Among men with high BAC, more than half were aged between 35-59 years.
  • Of the forty-six people with drugs in their blood, two in three had more than one drug listed.
  • After alcohol, the most common drugs present were antidepressants, followed by benzodiazepines, non-opioid analgesics and hypnotics.
  • The coronial data noted that almost one in three were smokers or it was ‘highly probable’ that they were smoking around the time of the fire. The rate of smokers in Ireland is currently estimated to be close to one in five, so smokers are over-represented in the fire fatalities.
  • Of the 32 smokers, twelve had smoking materials listed as a possible cause of the fire.
  • The majority of smokers had alcohol in their blood at the time of their death and 14 of these had a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of 160 mg/at which stage balance, coordination and possible loss of consciousness reduce ability to respond to fire.
Potential contributory factors

Possible contributory factors were present for 48 fires, these include smoking materials (including cigarettes) and electrical devices; either plugged in or faulty.

Other potential causes were self-harm, open fires and frying pans/chip pans. A small number of fires were reported to be linked to the presence of burning candles. Often combinations of different factors were potentially deemed responsible.

Mobility issues and disabilities

Having mobility issues and/or a disability could negatively affect your ability to respond and/or escape from a fire.

  • Sixteen fatalities were reported to have mobility issues (used a walking stick/frame, wheelchair or were otherwise immobile).
  • A small number of fatalities were reported to have had other disabilities including having poor eyesight or a hearing impairment.
  • Of this group with mobility issues, 75% were 65 years or older.

The research paper 'Profile of fire fatalities in Ireland using coronial data' is published in the Fire Safety Journal.

For more information contact:

Gillian Markey, Communications Manager, Health Research Board
m 087 2288514        e

For interviews with Séan Hogan, Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, please contact or call +353 1 8882638.

Notes to editors

The Health Research Board routinely collect information from closed coronial files to help understand circumstances around drug related deaths. Our researchers were able to extend the data that we normally collect to include fire fatalities in response to a request from the National Directorate for Fire and Emergency Management, Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.