Planning for burn disasters: Lessons learned from one hundred years of history

David J. Barillo, Steven Wolf

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

53 Scopus citations


The terrorist attacks of September 11th have prompted interest in developing plans to manage thousands of burn casualties. There is little actual experience in the United States in managing disasters of this magnitude. As an alternative, lessons may be learned from the historical experiences of previous civilian burn or fire disasters occurring in this country. A review of relevant medical, fire service, and popular literature pertaining to civilian burn or fire disasters occurring in the United States between the years 1900 and 2000 was performed. In the 20th century, 73 major U.S. fire or burn disasters have occurred. With each disaster prompting a strengthening of fire regulations or building codes, the number of fatalities per incident has steadily decreased. Detailed examination of several landmark fires demonstrated that casualty counts were great but that most victims had fatal injuries and died on the scene or within 24 hours. A second large cohort comprised the walking wounded, who required minimal outpatient treatment. Patients requiring inpatient burn care comprise a small percentage of the total casualty figure but consume enormous resources during hospitalization. Burn mass casualty incidents are uncommon. The number of casualties per incident decreased over time. In most fire disasters, the majority of victims either rapidly die or have minimal injuries and can be treated and released. As a result, most disasters produce fewer than 25 to 50 patients requiring inpatient burn care. This would be a rational point to begin burn center preparations for mass casualty incidents. A robust outpatient capability to manage the walking wounded is also desirable.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)622-634
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Burn Care and Research
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2006
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Emergency Medicine
  • Rehabilitation


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