At 4 AM on September 21, the Nevada (Iowa) Fire Department was called to the report of a house on fire. Every fire department has experienced the 4 AM wake-up to an active structure fire. The call we all train for is listed in this dispatch log:
[LAW] Back of the house is on fire, thinks it’s coming from the basement. She can see flames [09/21/18 03:57:30]
[LAW] Thinks it might be coming from the furnace. [09/21/18 03:57:43]
[LAW] Husband is inside trying to put out the fire. [09/21/18 03:58:35]
[LAW] Cat and dog are inside. [09/21/18 03:59:36]
[LAW] RP insisting on going inside for her animals, she was advised to evacuate the home.
[LAW] Ambulance sent for smoke inhalation to reporting party.
Since President Harry S. Truman gave the first Presidential Report on the condition of fire in America 71 years ago, the fire service has been telling our community members how to survive a home fire.
So why, in 2018, do we see an occupant fighting the fire instead of heeding instructions from 911 to get out and stay out? Why do we still see occupants going back into a burning home to rescue pets?
Why do we still see an improperly discarded cigarette in plant mulch? Why are building materials designed to propagate fire up the side of a home?
And why, after all these years, are we finding just two smoke alarms—neither of them working—inside the home where the family dog is credited with saving the occupants’ lives?
Something is very wrong with this fire call.
As I look at the recent data from the National Fire Protection Association, I see fire-dollar losses as well as fire deaths climbing steadily since 2013. Are we on the cusp of a new conflagration era?
Traditional school visits, fire-department open houses and old messages are not resonating with our average community members. Public apathy, listed as one of four main issues in America Burning in 1972, is still a real problem. Despite our messages, people do not accept that a fire can happen to them.
What is the cure?
I don’t have the magic pill for convincing our community members that fire is a dangerous threat to anyone involved. Consider this: What if Facebook were alive with just as many prevention messages as political ads?
The modern messages to close a door and call 911 early need to replace “Crawl low during a fire.” With today’s modern fire curve involving an ever-changing fuel composition, using outdated messages could literally be sending people crawling to their deaths.
Finally, we in the fire service need to own risk reduction more than educating to minimum standards. Consider the question asked of your fire department members: “How many smoke alarms should I have in my home?”
It isn’t good enough to tell people, “Every level, every bedroom and every hallway.” The appropriate response is, “When do you want to know there is a fire in your home?”
When will our communities finally choose a safe home over a large-screen TV? Safe homes involve layers of protection with many different sensing and alerting technologies, in combination with a sprinkler system standing, watch while we sleep safely in our beds.
I learned a lot from this fire. Despite an aggressive education and community risk reduction program, public apathy towards fire is still our greatest challenge.
It’s 4 AM; what’s on your mind?