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East Sussex Fire & Rescue Service logo
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Vulnerable people and clothing fires

How this fire happened

Accidental ignition of a jacket by cigarette lighter whilst smoking.

Burnt Wheelchair

This was sadly a fatal fire where an elderly gentleman who was confined to a wheelchair, accidentally ignited a jacket he was wearing. 

The gentleman also had limited use of his left arm and therefore found it difficult to remove his jacket or put the fire out. He managed to call for assistance, but due to the flammability of his jacket was overcome by the flames receiving significant burns which caused him to die later in hospital.


Subsequent testing of the jacket hood that remained intact after the fire, showed that it was very easy to ignite and also that fire developed and spread very quickly.

The effect it had

"How many of us know how vulnerable we are in the clothes which we wear on a day-to-day basis?
Well I found out the hard way!

My Partner of twenty two years was seventy two when he died, and had smoked some fifty years or so.
The day he died he was having a cigarette and set his clothes on fire.

My Partner served in the RAF for thirty three years, was always very independent and enjoyed life to the full. 
He suffered a stroke in 2013 resulting in immobility on the left side, resulting in becoming wheelchair bound.
His immobility became more severe and in 2014 he was transferred to a Care Home for twenty/four seven care.

On the day of the accident he was sitting out in the garden having a cigarette - one of few comforts left to him.
Within a short time his alarm was heard and on responding to this he was found to be on fire having set light
to his clothes. Despite all efforts by the response teams - paramedics, doctors, fire fighters he did not survive.
According to the death certificate my Partner died of cardiac arrest due to severe thermal injuries, being unable
to get out of the wheelchair and away from the fire.

Needless to say I lost my wonderful Partner due to unforeseeable highly inflammable clothing.

So, I ask again how vulnerable are we in the clothes we wear on a day-to-day basis?"

Historic fire deaths

[ Zoom ]
Burnt chair frame

*Elderly male smoker with poor health and limited mobility set his clothing alight whilst smoking a pipe and who sadly died

[ Zoom ]
Burnt chair

*Another elderly male smoker with poor health and limited mobility who set his clothing alight whilst smoking and who sadly died

[ Zoom ]
Burnt chair 2

*Middle aged female suffering reduced mobility due to MS, who set her clothing alight whilst smoking and who sadly died

*These pictures are from fires of a similar nature to the case detailed on this page.
Clothing fires pie chart

In East Sussex over a five year period from 2010 – 2015 nearly a third of our fatal fires have involved vulnerable people accidentally igniting their clothing, often from smoking materials, though other sources of ignition have also been responsible including open fires & cookers.

Video showing how different clothing fabrics burn

Test burning of various jackets made from a range of materials showing how they all can burn differently 

Legal position

Other than nightwear, there is currently no legal requirement for adult clothing to meet any fire safety standard. In the case of adult nightwear, the standard is limited to warning labels being required to indicate flammability.

With children’s nightwear as well as labelling, there is an additional requirement that the materials meet a minimum fire resistance as well. There are no requirements at all for adult or children’s day clothing.

Interestingly, children’s fancy dress is classed as a toy and this therefore only requires the garment to meet toy fire safety standards. In practice, toy fire safety standards only require testing to ensure that any item that catches fire could be dropped by the child so that they could move away.

Clearly as a child is wearing a fancy dress costume this is not possible and recently, following a high profile incident and subsequent campaign by the BBC watchdog Programme and the Chief Fire Officers Association, Government is being lobbied for better and more appropriate fire safety standards (Insert CFOA Communication).       

Safety message

Smoking Chair flyer
Download our safety advice leaflet

It is clear that a variety of  different clothing materials will burn differently depending on the type of material used as well as how tightly woven it is and if it is loose fitting.

Some materials, such as wool, are inherently fire resisting whilst others are not and can ignite easily and spread fire rapidly.

The greatest risk group are those who have limited mobility and or other health factors, causing them not to be immediately aware of what is happening around them and unable to react promptly. Smoking and excess consumption of alcohol are also factors that can increase the risk of setting clothing alight.

If you care for or know of anyone who you feel may be vulnerable from the potential danger of igniting their clothing, please make them aware of our safety advice and contact the The Community Safety Team so that we can assess whether there is any other support that we can provide. 

Highlighting the issue

East Sussex Fire & Rescue Service are keen to highlight the issue of  vulnerable people and clothing fires at a national and government level so as to help determine whether there is more that can be done to reduce the occurrence and impact of these types of fire.

In particular the Service is looking to promote labelling of clothing to include its risk from fire, so that vulnerable people, their carers, families and friends can make an informed decision about the type of clothing they wear.

Further information

Fire retardant lap blankets

The can help to protect a vulnerable smokers. ESFRS can provide on request to eligible people.

Fire retardant lap blanket
This blanket helped to protect a vulnerable smoker

Fire resistance labelling

Where items are required to meet minimum standards of fire resistance (such  as wheelchairs) it is important to realise that in general, fire resistance  standards do not mean that an item will not catch fire or burn. 

The  testing generally only means that they have a certified level of 'fire resistance' when tested to strict parameters often including time, heat output and distance etc.  

The real world can be very different and you should always take additional fire prevention measures - especially where vulnerable people are concerned.

Example of fire resistance labelling
Example of fire resistance labelling

Do you have a similar story?

We would be interested to hear from you if you have had a similar experience to the fire detailed above, or would like to raise any related matters or even just generally comment on how useful you found our Black Museum.

Please send us your details and a comments via our on-line feedback form.


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Latest Update :
11 November 2015
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