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For Anna Angel, whose five children and boyfriend were killed in an early morning fire, the tragedy unfolding Sunday in Tiffin, Ohio, was almost unbearable. Ms. Angel was working at a Burger King when she heard that her nearby trailer home was ablaze. After she raced home on a bike, then was taken to the hospital, she identified her children. One by one, she kissed their lifeless bodies good-bye.
No one knows what could have prevented these deaths, but it’s certain that the home was unsafe. Nationwide building and fire standards for mobile — sometimes called manufactured — homes were substantially toughened by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1976. Unfortunately, the mobile home in which Ms. Angel and her children lived was built in 1972, the Seneca County Auditor’s Office told The Blade editorial page. It last sold for $800 in 2009.
Out of the estimated 7 million mobile homes in use, about 19 percent, or roughly 1.3 million, date from before 1975, reports John Hall, division director for fire analysis and research at the National Fire Protection Association.
The older homes may have working smoke alarms, as Ms. Angel’s home apparently did, but that won’t always make a difference in a structure not built to inhibit flame spread, as HUD now requires. The inside of Ms. Angel’s trailer was completely charred.
Fires in newer homes are far more likely to be contained to the room of origin. Mobile homes built before 1976 are virtual fire traps. No matter what improvements are made, the federal government will not insure a loan to purchase one.
Death rates for fires in mobile homes built after the introduction of new HUD standards dropped dramatically. The 1989-1998 death rate, for example, was 54 percent lower for post-standard homes than for pre-standard structures.
As safer HUD-standard homes replace pre-standard ones, the fire safety gap between mobile and traditional homes continues to close. From 2007 to 2011, fire deaths were 3 per 100,000 mobile housing units. During the same period, fire deaths for traditional one and two-family homes ranged from 2.7 to 3, NFPA’s Hall found.
New mobile homes have become as fire-safe as traditional homes. But that doesn’t do anything for the people — most of them poor — who live in the more than 1 million mobile homes built before 1976. State and federal governments must find a way to either make those substandard units safer, or take them off the market. The alternatives to doing nothing are far too horrific, as the entire nation, watching a day in hell unfold in Tiffin, Ohio, learned on Sunday.