October is Fire Prevention Month.


Mr. Hart is 74 years old and has never married. He smokes heavily, particularly if he has been drinking. Currently, Mr. Hart faces being evicted from his apartment. Twice in the last year neighbours called the fire department: he had fallen asleep, leaving supper on the stove to burn.

Falling asleep in that easy chair in front of the television with a drink and cigarette, or falling asleep and leaving supper burning on the stove are just two examples of situations leading to fire death for older adults. Many common medications combined with even one or two drinks can lead to increased sedation so that the person may not wake up and smell the smoke.



What to Watch Out For


There are many medications that taken before, after or during drinking can leave people sleepy, light headed, dizzy and make them less alert. These medications include:

And the list goes on.  Because people's bodies have less tolerance for medications as they age (it often takes less medication to get the effect), these interaction problems can easily happen to older adults.


If you smoke and drink, or even if you simply smoke and use these medications, use a lot of caution. You may want to consider cutting out the alcohol for the time being.




Preventing Harms

Many heavy drinkers are also heavy smokers. Their smoking behaviour while drinking can leave them and others at risk of injury or dying because of fires caused by smoking while intoxicated.

Some older people have a favourite chair in front of television, and keep some liquor and cigarettes beside on side table. The cigarette drops into the chair, it smolders and catches fire later while the person sleeps. The smoldering materials can render people unconscious, thus putting them at greater risk of injury or death from the ensuing fire.

Older people who have mobility problems are higher risk of injury or death if a fire happens. People can help reduce that risk of harm in several different ways, including:

  • monitoring their own behaviour (trying to avoid smoking if tired or if drinking);
  • using deep coffee cans with sand to extinguish their cigarettes;
  • having a good, working smoke detector (check the batteries on  a regular basis); 
  • having surfaces immediately around the favourite chair made of materials that are less likely to burn.

Did you know that fires started by the careless smoking are the leading known cause of fire-related death in Canada. More than 70 people per year on average  die because of cigarette fires.

Cigarette fires are typically the result of careless handling of lit cigarettes :

Anywhere from 25 and 60% of cigarette-fire deaths are attributable to people smoking while intoxicated.

On a per fire basis, fires ignited by smokers' materials result in more fatalities and property damage than fires ignited by other sources. The people killed or injured in these fires are often children, older adults and people who are poor.

Health Canada has several fire prevention efforts, including educating the public of the dangers of careless handling of lit cigarettes; and voluntary regulation of furniture materials. These approaches have been successful in reducing the number of fires started by cigarettes, but the number and human and social costs of the fires is still high.

Here is a community Fire Prevention Brochure geared to mature smokers. Feel free to use it in your community.


Of Storms and Candles: Fires can kill at any age. The recent hurricane Juan which hit Halifax and other parts of Nova Scotia in early October, 2003, also led to fire related deaths from people using candles.

A suggestion for people of any age:

ē Try to avoid drinking in front of the television set. It is too easy to lose track of the amount you are drinking over the course of the day or night. Also if you are a smoker, it is very easy to fall asleep with a cigarette burning when in that easy chair, with an increased risk of fire.


General Fire Prevention Resources

The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory, a virtual exhibition


Fire Prevention Resources for Seniors

Older and Wiser Fire: Safety Tips for Older Adults. From the Fire Marshall of Ontario.

Fire Safety for Seniors.  What to Do \Checklist; Plan and Protection; If Fire Starts; If You are Trapped. Produced by Union Fire Co.

Letís Retire Fire - Fire Safety for Senior Citizens. Produced by Troutville  Volunteer Fire Department.


Girasek DC, Gielen AC, & Smith GS. (2002). Alcohol's contribution to fatal injuries: A report on public perceptions. Ann Emerg Med 2002; 39(6): 622-630.

Holborn PG, Nolan PF, & Golt J. (2003). An analysis of fatal unintentional dwelling fires investigated by London Fire Brigade between 1996 and 2000.  Fire Safety Journal, 38(1): 1-42.

National Institute an Alcohol and Alcoholism,  Alcohol-Medication Interactions, Alcohol Alert.




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