AUSTRALIA spends too much trying to prevent fires, according to a controversial study by an insurance researcher.
Conceding that the findings for such a ''sensitive'' matter might upset some and anger others, Brian Ashe said an analysis of the $12 billion in annual funding for fire prevention backs his case.
Dr Ashe works with the insurance industry-funded Risk Frontiers centre at Macquarie University. He gained his doctorate studying the cost of fire.
Writing in the Australian National University journal Agenda he says the total cost of fires in Australia amounts to about $18 billion per year, of which $11.9 billion is fire prevention and $4.4 billion is fire response.
The cost of injury, lost lives and lost property amounts to only 9 per cent of the total - $1.7 billion.
Australia's fire fatality rate is "already low by international standards" at 0.6 deaths per 100,000 of population and has proved "resistant to increasing expenditure on fire management and protection".
Dr Ashe surveyed 26 fire professionals and found that none believed further spending would result in a net economic gain. All but four believed Australia would be better off if it spent less on attempting to prevent fires.
"This is a very sensitive matter and, really, what we're looking to get is the best out of our investment," Dr Ashe told Fairfax Media.
"We just have to be careful that we don't put too many resources into one hazard."
Dr Ashe said if $4.5 billion of the money spent on fire safety was returned to businesses and consumers as tax cuts, health and nutrition would improve, thereby saving lives. His modelling suggests such tax cuts would save between 90 and 225 lives per year, which coincidentally is close to the total number of lives lost to fire each year.
"When you take money out of the economy or out of people's pockets there is an impact in terms of their health and safety," Dr Ashe said. "I don't know where the balance is, but I think it is a debate that needs to be had. You can't keep throwing money at an issue; you need to be a bit more sophisticated about it."
Dr Ashe believes the media's coverage of fires fans perceptions of risk. A study he completed after the 2009 Victorian bushfires showed a jump in estimates of the risk of death from fire were exaggerated, something he blames on the reporting.
"What happens all the time is events like this occur, there's demand for more resources and generally more resources are provided."
About 114 lives are lost each year from fire, 14 of them from bushfires.
Nicholas Gruen, a former presiding commissioner at the Productivity Commission, said he was uneasy applying cost-benefit techniques to fire prevention.
A spokesperson from the Attorney General's department said the government made "no apology for investing in the protection of lives".