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The number of people who died in accidental residential fires reached 1,041 in 2003, topping 1,000 for the first time. 2005 saw 1,220 deaths in such fires — a record since 1979 when the oldest comparable statistics were taken, according to a white paper on fire defense approved by the Cabinet in December. The January-September period in 2006 saw 862 deaths, an increase of nine from a year before. In the meantime, the number of fire-brigade members has been declining, reaching a record low of 900,007 as of April 2006.

What is worrying is the fact that a majority of those who died in residence fires are elderly people aged 65 or older. In 2005, 691 senior citizens died, an increase of 17.1 percent from the previous year. They accounted for 56.6 percent of total deaths. As the graying of the population progresses, it is feared that more elderly people will die in residential fires. Another worrying factor is that the number of males aged 55 through 59 who died in residential fires more than doubled in the period from 1996 to 2005 — from 30 to 83. About 60 percent of them were jobless and about a half lived alone. Cigarettes caused of many of the fires.

The government has declared that it will aim to halve the number of total fire-related deaths in 10 years. About 60 percent of those who died were unable to escape the fire. To reduce the number of such deaths, the revised Fire Defense Law made it mandatory to install fire alarms in newly built houses from June 2006. In old houses, installment of fire alarms will become mandatory by June 2011 at the latest. Municipal by-laws can move up the mandatory installment date. The problem is that many people do not know there is a legal requirement to install fire alarms, which cost 3,000 yen to 7,000 yen. Many people also do not know where to buy them. Local governments, fire stations and alarm manufacturers need to increase their public-relations efforts. Communities also need to step up efforts to prevent arson, which is responsible for up to 30 percent of fires in some areas.

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