The History and Purpose of Fire Prevention Week

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Fire prevention week marks the annual anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 in which 250 people lost their lives. The week has been widely commemorated since 1922.

The purpose of the event is to promote the importance of fire prevention and fire safety awareness.

What is the Great Chicago Fire?

Fire Prevention Week commemorates the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. This fire devastated Chicago from 8 – 10 October. Here are the gruesome facts of the toll it took on Chicago:

  • The fire killed over 250 people
  • 100,000 people became homeless after their homes burned
  • 17,400 buildings were burned down
  • More than 2,000 acres were scorched
  • The fire burned for 3 days

How did the Great Chicago Fire begin?

Rumor is that the fire began when Catherine O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lamp in a barn. The barn fire led to a devastating city-wide conflagration.

The rumor of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow began shortly after the fire when Michael Ahern wrote a piece in the Chicago Tribune making the accusation.

Mrs. O’Leary contests that she was in bed early that night and her cows had all been put away safely. A recent historical investigation by historian Robert Cromie found no evidence that a cow caused the fire. However, he did find that the fire started somewhere in the vicinity of that barn.

In 1893, Ahern admitted that he had fabricated the story.

Here are some other speculations:

  • Boys from the area were sneakily smoking cigarettes behind the barn, which led to the fire;
  • Catherine O’Leary’s neighbor started the blaze;
  • A meteorite that split as it entered the atmosphere may have been the cause of not only the Chicago fire, but also fires in Michigan and Wisconsin on October 8th.

When did Fire Prevention Week Begin?

On the 40th Anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Fire Marshals Association of North America organized for a week of commemoration and public awareness campaigns. 

In 1920, President Woodrow Wilson issued a National Fire Prevention Day proclamation which was followed by the first Fire Prevention Week in 1922. Since 1925, it has been an official week of national observance in the United States.

Here’s that timeline again:

  • 1871: Great Chicago Fire
  • 1920: President Woodrow Wilson issues National Fire Prevention Day proclamation
  • 1922: National Fire Prevention Week is commemorated for first time
  • 1925: Fire Prevention Week becomes an official week of national observance.

Which countries Observe Fire Prevention Week?

United States of America – The nation where fire prevention week began. It is celebrated on the week of 9 October each year. It has been commemorated on this day since 1922.

Canada – Canada also marks fire prevention week on the week of 9 October every year. Canadians also mark Fire Services Recognition Day on the final day (Saturday) of fire prevention week. This day is reserved for acknowledging the community contributions of both volunteer and career firefighters.

Australia – The state of New South Wales in Australia marked fire prevention week on the first week of May in 2011. We can’t find any evidence that the week continues to be observed annually in Australia.

What is the Purpose of Fire Prevention Week?

The week’s purpose is to raise awareness of fire prevention and fire safety. Each year, there are:

  • About 1.3 million fires in the United States
  • About 3,500 deaths from fires in the United States
  • About 14,000 injuries from fires in the United States
  • About $23 billion of financial damage due to fires

There are many steps that can be taken to prevent fires and save lives when a fire does occur. Fire prevention week is an important week for reminding people to be prepared for fire emergencies.

Here are some common things promoted during fire prevention week:

  • Educational campaigns about what to do when there is a house fire;
  • Teaching children skills like stop, drop and roll;
  • Encouraging people to check and update their fire emergency plans;
  • Holding open days at firehalls to encourage interaction between firefighters and the community.

What should you do During Fire Prevention Week?

Fire prevention week is an excellent time of year for everyone to pause and think about their own fire prevention and emergency plan.

Here is what we recommend you do during each fire prevention week:

  • Checking smoke alarms to ensure they are still working;
  • Ensuring a home is fire safe. Chris and I created a checklist when making our home fire safe. You can check out our own home fire safety checklist here;
  • Checking for overloaded power points where fires often start;
  • Ensuring a fire extinguisher is placed in close proximity to power tools.
  • Talking with your children about what to do when there is a fire. Where is your emergency meeting place? What are the two escape routes your child can take from their bedroom?

What are some Teaching Ideas for Fire Prevention Week?

Many teachers use fire prevention week to promote fire safety to young children.

Some fire prevention week activities for teachers include:

  • Teaching stop, drop and roll to children. Role play it until they get it!
  • Singing fire safety songs.
  • Creating a class fire escape plan.
  • Checking to see that the classroom’s smoke alarms are working.
  • Having a field trip to the local firehouse.

Further Reading

Check out other great posts on our site:


Here are some great sources for further reading about fire prevention week: