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Fire & Life Safety: How's Our Message?

In late summer, I watched several hours of coverage over several weeks about the rampant flooding in Texas. Reporting on the emergency-response preparations was impressive. I saw USAR swift-water rescue teams staging in strategic locations with boats, high-water apparatus from the National Guard and rescue helicopters from several agencies. I saw rescues taking place using fire trucks, boats, hovercraft and helicopters.

What a show! The message was clear. “Don’t worry, we’ve got this.”

Our emergency response is outstanding; telegraphing a message that we can rescue everyone is not. As I write this, 15 people have perished as a result of the recent floods and nine are still missing. We didn’t rescue everyone.

Similar messages are regularly transmitted regarding fire protection. Fire departments tell their customers, “Dial 9-1-1 and we’ll handle your problem.”

It doesn’t matter what the problem is; we’re focused on our customers and no problem is too great for us to manage.

Is this your department? In presentations to your citizens, are you focusing on your emergency response capabilities? Are you telling them, “Don’t worry, we’ve got this”?

If so, I submit you’re delivering the wrong message.

Everyone knows you’ll be there in an emergency; everyone knows that when they dial 9-1-1 and ask for a fire-department response, help is only minutes away.

The problem is that being minutes away from help isn’t good enough today. With today’s fire environment, even a small fire can engulf most or all of a home before the arrival of the first-due engine.

Consider UL’s recent comparison between a legacy room fire and a modern room fire. The legacy room was constructed and furnished as homes were decades ago; the modern room was a replica of what you’d find in a home today. The modern room reached flashover in three and a half minutes, while the legacy room took almost a half hour to flashover.

Based on a time to flashover of three and a half minutes, consider your response. If it takes ninety seconds for an occupant to discover the fire and call 9-1-1 and thirty seconds for the 9-1-1 call taker to take the information, transfer the call and dispatch the fire department, and if the closest engine turns out in 30 seconds, that gives the engine company one minute to travel to the scene of the fire, stretch hose lines and attack the fire before it reaches flashover.

You can clearly see that even under the best of circumstances, most fires will be beyond flashover before you arrive.

I’d like to suggest a different message, which will require a culture or paradigm shift for the fire service: We aren’t able to solve every problem every time.

Let’s let people know that each person has a responsibility for their own safety and that of their neighbor. In other words, prevention and mitigation of fire and other emergencies begins at home.

This isn’t to suggest that people shouldn’t call 9-1-1, and it doesn’t mean we aren’t going to respond and do everything we can to mitigate whatever emergency is in progress.

It does mean that we recognize we can’t be everywhere all the time and that our responsibility is to deliver the knowledge each citizen needs to make good decisions about fire safety. It means trusting our neighbors—our constituents—to make sound decisions in times of emergency rather than offering a single solution to every fire.

“Get out, stay out” sounds like good advice, but it’s counterintuitive to the person in the room where a fire starts. Why not “Snuff it out if it’s small; when in doubt, just get out” or some similar message? Why discourage people from solving a problem while the solution is viable, that is, while the fire is small?

According to a series of studies conducted by the Consumer Products Safety Commission, about 95% of the residential fires in the United States are not reported to a fire department. This is clear evidence that people are taking it upon themselves to mitigate their own fire problem. Whether they cover a burning pan, turn the power off to the oven or use a fire extinguisher on a sofa, they are doing what they need to do to slow or extinguish the fire.

Had these people gone outdoors and called the fire department, many of their homes would have been destroyed, even with the best efforts of the local fire department.

I would offer the following messages to members of my community:

  • Never leave cooking food unattended on the stove.
  • Develop and practice an escape plan; include two ways out of every sleeping room.
  • Always call 9-1-1 when a fire occurs, either before attempting to extinguish the fire or, in cases where the fire has grown too large, from outside the home.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher and know how to use it; online tutorials are widely available.
  • Know how everyone in the home responds to smoke alarms; some people, especially children, may sleep through an alarm. Plan accordingly.

If we’re to have an impact on the fire problem in the United States, we can’t do it alone. We need everyone to engage in fire prevention at home and at work; we need everyone to react appropriately to the situation and help us keep fires small. Sometimes that means closing the door behind you on the way out; other times it means putting a lid on a skillet or turning off the oven.

Regardless, our community members have an important role to play, and we need to provide them with the knowledge to be as effective as possible.

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