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Fire & Life Safety: America Is Still Burning

On page seven of AMERICA BURNING, you’ll find this statement:

A consideration of equal importance is the need to change the priorities in the field of fire prevention. Currently, about 95 cents of every dollar spent on the fire services is used to extinguish fires; only about 5 cents is spent on efforts—mostly fire prevention inspections and public education programs—to prevent fires from starting.

Nearly 42 years later, the cost to human life and property is still worth 5 cents of every dollar.

Six months into the job as a new chief, my city administrator showed me an article from a magazine published by city managers. The article shared how fires aren’t happening as frequently; EMS is the new fire service buzzword. My administrator said, "Maybe we should buy ambulances, not fire trucks, since 80% of all calls are EMS.”

It's interesting that we couldn’t afford new trucks to begin with but people accept letting fire engines get older to make way EMS healthcare delivery. What about the fire problem?

As a fully functioning volunteer service with one paid employee (the chief), we install smoke alarms. We capture juvenile fire-setter data for the state. We report NFIRS calls. We run EMS as first responders and even conduct public education.

I can't find the magic pill for preventing fires. I can't even fix why people don’t care about prevention until they’re personally touched by fire. Sometimes on a major structure fire, I’m lucky to have six firefighters, who are paid $7.50 per call, who do their best to make a difference.

Most of the issues identified in 1973 still exist. To steal a quote from a fire service friend of mine, "I thought we would be further upstream by now."

The perfect storm is brewing for a conflagration in the United States. The things working against prevention are most prevalent. Let's examine what the fire service is talking about while the public is sleeping in their disposable home.

What are the causes?

Here are just a few:

Building efficient, low-cost homes has created construction techniques based on wood chip and compressed fibers rather than whole-grain legacy wood. While some argue the structural stability to sustain heavy loads is achieved, research shows that houses today collapse more often and sooner.

The culture of convenience has contributed to plastics invading our homes; you’d be hard pressed to not find plastics in every room of a home. This increase in plastics has increased smoke toxicity, flame development and reduced visibility during fire. Also, the trend for synthetic fiber blends has increased the overall flammability of clothing, and furniture is following this same trend.

The #1 cause of arson in our state is youthful fire setters; the fourth overall leading cause of fires can also be tied to juveniles being involved. How many arson fires were set through the years by offenders reaching adult ages?

Apathy! Quite simply, fire prevention in society is an afterthought.

People make so many bad decisions that affect their fire safety, it's hard to categorize them. Removing batteries from smoke alarms, using extension cords and leaving cooking unattended, to name a few.

Why do people risk their lives on these behaviors? Common responses are, “I didn’t know that would cause a fire” or “I wish I had done something different.”

Why does it take a fire to educate people about the dangers of fire?

Some believe the act of fighting the beast is much more impressive than teaching people to prevent a fire. Isn’t that counterintuitive? Aren’t we supposed to stop fires before they start?

I don’t discount that someone has to put the fire out. We’re the best fire-extinguishment system short of a residential sprinkler. But, why is the best fire-prevention tool for a neighborhood a burned house?

There isn't a formalized national fire-prevention program. People have been researching this for over 20 years; when will we have an answer?

I support getting into schools because focusing on kids is how we make gains in fire prevention, but it’s better to get into every home. America is one of the richest, most-developed countries—with one of the worst fire records on the planet.

In our state, only 10% of homes are adequately covered with working smoke alarms. We often host battery giveaways and smoke-alarm installation programs; it makes us feel like we’re making a difference. The reality is we’re putting our finger in a leaking dike. Even after a tragedy that took four lives in a small Iowa community, we found 500 homes three weeks later without working alarms.

We’ll chase batteries and smoke-alarm installations forever if we let ourselves. Why do we do it? I think it’s because we don't have other working options.

Our department believes in smoke-alarm installations. It's not about the home but the people inside. It isn't just fire prevention; it’s a firefighter-safety program. Having people outside when their house is on fire means I’m less likely to risk firefighters to save an empty building.

Don't get me wrong; we’re keeping up on firefighting research. We still have plenty of buildings that burn to perfect our trade.

The economy—it’s blamed for so much; it’s also blamed for the push against residential sprinklers. Many people tell me sprinklers cost too much, yet they don’t know the actual costs. The network working against public education is much more effective than the fire service’s efforts to promote public safety.

Combine all these causes above and the question needs to be asked: Are we creating a conflagration problem like years past, but with different products? Much like 1973, it’s time to start over.

What about fire awareness?

Perhaps it isn't about fire prevention as much as it is fire awareness. Maybe we’re doing it wrong. In the last five years, we’ve seen public and political opinion counter code enforcement. Things like self-established occupancy loads, noncompliance buildings and deregulation of sprinkler laws have hurt our credibility because we’ve used up our collateral in combating those who fight against our safety codes.

Their message resonates with the public as they imply, "Fire will never ever happen to you!"

Our hidden message: "This is gonna cost money."

I’m not suggesting we don’t enforce codes; in fact, quite the opposite. But maybe it's time for a little tough love.

We recently had a seed corn company build a large building without plan approval. Short of arresting the owner, communicating our displeasure seemed hopeless.

The owner called, wanting the fire department to walk through the building. I declined. The shocked business owner said, "Why don't you want to come see my building? We’re going to have an open house soon"

I informed him that his building was noncompliant, lacked exits and sprinklers and was never approved for occupancy in our city. In calculating the nearby hydrant flow and the likelihood of structural collapse involving higher than normal BTU loads from plastic pallet storage, I had already predicted how we would fight a fire in this building so I didn't need to go inside.

He was stunned and wanted to know more.

It's simply risk management. I would never send lives into a building with a high likelihood of failure. Similarly, why would I send lives into a building that I had no input in making safer? (OK, we did tour the building, reinforcing that we would always go defensive.)

How do we win the war started in 1973?

Market your fire departments. Replace the solid doors and put glass in the station so the public can see we exist. Every time people drive by our house, they can see what they own.

We’re planning a community fire-engine waxing party so locals take ownership and realize why fire engines exist.

The threat of fire is very real. The addition of social media, our Facebook page and electronic signs help us get out our fire-awareness message. Drill uptown and in the streets if you want to cause an awareness frenzy. People should ask questions about why a fire engine is laying hose on Main Street.

We do coloring contests at school and drive the winning kids to school in a fire engine—much neater than a yellow school bus. Paint your hydrants based on water flow and include articles and photos in the local water bill.

And yes, we still go to the schools during Fire Prevention Week and then some.

Here’s the deal. I'm tired! I’m tired of reading that dang report from 1973 and seeing things get worse. I can't figure the secret of prevention despite 29 years of trying. I don't know if we actually prevent fires or not.

Here’s what’s important. We can't control what houses are made of, who fights our codes or even who listens to the message. We can do two things:

  • Do what we can to get people out standing on the curb when a fire happens.
  • Make good decision for those trusting us about whether to send them through the front door.

The lives of both groups are the most important things to me.

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