A look at fire prevention in America, class paper (2009)
|¬ What’s Cookin’?: A look at fire prevention in America|
Even before the dawn of man, fire has been a driving and devastating power in this world. When the first cavemen were able to harness this awesome force, one can imagine it being used for life comforts and survival: cooking, heating, and perhaps even protection from animals, and eventually warfare. Along with its useful discoveries also came the dangerous side of the equation: its destructive side. Its ability to consume, injure, and eradicate. Through man’s history, fire has remained a powerful tool with a distinct dark side if left loose. But what has been done to control this tool? Have we, in American society, learned to stop devastating fire disasters from occurring? Maybe not as much as one would think.
In order to look at the roots of fire prevention in America, we must look back at the history of fire prevention and building codes in the world’s first civilizations. The history of building codes, as explained by author David Diamantes and further detailed by Richard Hooker, is first presented by King Hammurabi, the founder of the Babylonian empire. It is in Hammurabi’s laws that were published around 1760 BC, and which have been come to be known as ‘The Code of Hammurabi’ (Hooker), that we find what is believed to be both the first and most basic rules governing building construction, and the importance of having proper materials used for the purpose: If a building collapses and kills the owner, the builder shall be put to death (Diamantes 4). To add to that decree, a second law reads: “If it kill the son of the owner the son of that builder shall be put to death” (Hooker). During the first century, Diamantes shows that the Romans had a similar basic approach to fire prevention efforts that were enforced by the Vigles, the Roman seven-thousand-man strong force charged with fire protection in Rome (4). These Vigles are commonly believed to be the first organized fire department and fire prevention bureau in history. According to Diamantes, the Roman law that was enforced was simple: “Have a fire? Get punished” (4). It was that easy, and there were no excuses. Obviously, our ancestors realized early on that fires could cause great destruction and that prevention efforts must be upheld. This train of thought carried on as civilizations grew and expanded throughout world history, and humanity saw great fires in major cities such as Rome and London.
Fast-forward a bit to American history. Between 1820 and 1908 alone, America saw no less than 17 conflagrations, involving major cities such as Baltimore, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City. In response to these fires, American politicians began to pass law after law concerning fire prevention and building construction practices. However, despite these efforts, the political machines in America could not seem to provide the backing that the regulations needed to succeed, such as support for the fire departments or the supervision of the fire wardens. With the failure of political games, it wasn’t until the builders and insurance agencies came together that a set of real and enforceable building and fire codes came to light (Diamantes 5-6).
In America in the 2000’s, fire and building codes are highly regulated, especially when concerning new construction projects. Most of the cities and towns in the country adopt and follow codes put forth by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) or the International Code Council (ICC) (Diamantes 7-8). There are, of course, some exceptions that vary from state to state. In these cases, the codes that are followed are either state mandated, or the town or city has had the option not to adopt a newer code, relying on an older version of a pre-existing model. Whichever the case, new or old, these codes give the foundation and guidelines of what materials may or may not be used, what precautions must be taken to prevent fire or structural loss, and may even limit what type of material can or cannot be used in certain occupancies. These codes also provide prevention and inspection professionals the tools they need to check on a particular occupancy or operation, make a determination if the area is safe, and if it isn’t, the codes also provide for the basis of enforcement procedures. Diamantes points out that it is in this ‘power of the codes’, promoted by and originating in the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, that we find when and how a fire or building inspector can legally go about enforcing the codes’ regulations (12-13). Without this backing, America may never have progressed past the political set-backs that were witnessed in the 18-1900’s. Armed with the legal ability, the duty to act, the regulations to follow, and the support of local governments to do their jobs, fire and building officials carry out inspections and plan examinations in order to protect our nation from one of the oldest forces in this world. But, are their efforts working?
Historic fires in America have been earmarked by the combined loss of life and dollar amount of damage incurred. In almost all of these cases, investigations performed following the fires revealed that poor building codes, or sometimes the lack of enforcement, played a major part in the fires’ destruction. As shown by Diamantes, one of the most crucial elements in these fires, including the Rhythm Club, Coconut Grove, and Our Lady of Angels School disasters, was the interior finishes of the buildings. Diamantes also details that in some cases, tests on the materials used in these buildings found that when touched with a match, the material would become totally destroyed by fire in a very short amount of time, and sometimes even instantly (129-134).
Another point of concern in most of these historic fires was the accessibility of exits and egress from the area. Whether due to overcrowding or poor exit design, as seen in the Iroquois Theater fire in 1903, or because of the seemingly nonchalant response by patrons as revealed during investigations into the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire, improper exits and means of egress have contributed to hundreds losing their lives. In response to all of these tragic fire events, fire and building codes were adopted, enforced, and updated in an effort to prevent additional disasters. Changes were made to exit placement, accessibility, and size, and restrictions were placed on the type of interior finishes and construction requirements that could be used in assembly areas. Our nation seemed contented that senseless fires in these types of establishments would now finally be put to rest. However, in 2003 at the Station Nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, America would experience yet another terrible fire. With 100 fatalities and 200 more injured, the Station Nightclub fire would remind everyone that fire is not easily controlled when given the chance to spread. The foam plastic insulation used for soundproofing in the club had been ignited by fireworks being used onstage, and in a mad panic to flee, many found themselves stuck at the exits, crushed by the crowd (Diamantes 108). Another lesson learned, perhaps. Luckily, fires this devastating are rare, and statistics show that America is indeed becoming more fire safety conscious.
According to his published NFPA fire loss report for 2007, writer Michael Karter lists that there were 1,557,500 fires across the country, resulting in approximately 3,500 civilian deaths and over 17,500 civilian injuries. Additionally, he reports that these fires also caused an estimated $14,639,000,000 in direct property loss. As large as the number of fires may seem, it is indeed lower than the previous year. In actuality, according to Karter’s report, this downward trend in fires has been on the decline since 1977. This spells good news for prevention professionals, apparently showing that there has been some progress made in the field, not just on paper.
Away from the glam and glitter associated with our typical vision of the fire trucks, lights, sirens, and all that goes with them, the fire prevention division is a little more quiet and reserved, or at least not in the spotlight that the suppression division is. That separation of the two branches depends on the department’s structure as a whole, of course, and varies from city to city. The prevention bureau itself can sometimes be split in order to handle the different facets of fire prevention and education projects. In larger cities, the prevention bureau usually acts as part of the operations division of the department, falling under the direction of a battalion or assistant chief (Wieder and Smith 22). The personnel in these bureaus are typically uniformed firefighters who have worked their way through the ranks of the fire department, and are using what they’ve learned in the field to now prevent fires from occurring by looking for situations that they have come across in their tenure as a working firefighter. The City of Pittsburgh uses a slightly different approach. While the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire (PBF) maintains a Prevention division, the majority of inspection and code enforcement activities come from fire inspectors who are employed with the Bureau of Building Inspection (BBI). In Pittsburgh’s set-up, the PBF inspector handles details such as fireworks displays, checks on nightclubs and assembly occupancies, and performs education programs, while the BBI inspectors handle inspections of sprinkler and fire alarm systems, as well as issuing and completing permits, and checking on citizen complaints of fire hazards. Still, other cities use third-party inspectors who are not affiliated with the fire department or the local government in any fashion. These inspectors then carry out whatever duties of prevention and inspection that they have been hired to do.
How ever a particular city’s system may be set up, the goals are the same: the prevention of fires, the education of the public and peers, and the promotion of life safety in general. There are many methods that code officials can use to accomplish these goals, however fire marshal and journalist Jim Crawford suggests that the most effective method is done with a business-like customer service attitude. Like many professionals in the field, Crawford believes that prevention, not punishment, is key to a successful program. In explaining his view on the matter, Crawford writes, “But the intent of inspections is not simply to catch people doing wrong. We’re trying to spot hazards and to help business operators understand and abate them.” He also notes that, “Hazard education – and public education generally – is one of the best areas to focus our customer service.” (Crawford) By using a ‘cake rather than vinegar’ approach, Crawford believes that all facets of a prevention program will benefit, including the increased willingness of business owners to co-operate with the system. Crawford also introduces us to the next area of concern for fire prevention personnel: Education.
Code enforcement and inspection activities are only one part of a prevention professional’s job. Fire safety education is a second part. To this end, fire prevention educators must understand the common causes of fires, and then promote safety programs designed to eliminate these hazards, or at least minimize the impact that such a fire may have. Organizations such as the NFPA and the Home Safety Council (HSC) collate research information on fires, and then present safety information on various topics such as appliances, cooking, candles, and other common fire causes encountered nationwide. By using this information, and utilizing pamphlets and other visual materials available through these organizations, educators can present safety seminars and classes on a wide variety of topics to a variety of audiences. Naturally, according to the NFPA, educators would prefer to start fire safety education early in life in order to help teach children how to make responsible choices regarding health and safety, and many of the NFPA’s efforts are directed at providing educators with the tools to help teach children to “Learn not to Burn”, a popular NFPA program.
As an example, the NFPA and HSC both acknowledge that cooking accidents are the leading cause of fires across the country. Statistics from the NFPA for 2005 show:
• U.S. fire departments responded to 146,400 home structure fires that involved cooking equipment. These fires caused 480 civilian fire deaths, 4,690 civilian fire injuries and $876 million in direct property damage.
• Cooking equipment fires are the leading cause of home structure fires and associated civilian injuries. These fires accounted for 40% of all reported home structure fires in 2005 and 36% of home civilian injuries.
It’s not hard to see that these types of fires are a concern. Fires involving cooking equipment, stoves left unattended, and even fires involving towels or other combustibles left too close to the cooking surface have plagued our nation and have cost hundreds of millions of dollars in damages and insurance monies (National Fire Prevention Association). The identified problem was also the subject of a 2007 report prepared by the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA). In this report, with data compiled from 1980 to 2003, the statistics of cooking fires were explained and graphed. Although the report shows a definite regressing trend in cooking fires during this period, the graph indicates a slight rise again from 1998 to 2003. Overall, though, it appears that prevention and education efforts have had success in this area, lowering occurrences over a 13-year span. In fact, as far as education is concerned, one of the conclusions of the report suggests performing joint education on fire prevention and burn prevention. By presenting the material in a ‘cause and effect’ type atmosphere, the USFA report implies that the general impact of both presentations would hold better with an audience, and help show that injuries and deaths from this chronic problem are real, but can be prevented.
In order to arm educators with the information they need to convey to their audiences, organizations across the country have developed scores of programs to cater to the specific listeners’ needs, abilities, and levels of assumed comprehension. While children are taught the basics of ‘Stop, Drop and Roll’ and “Learn Not to Burn” (NFPA), organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency accommodate more to the adult learner, placing the impact of not heeding fire safety lessons right out in the open with weighted warning figures such as “In just two minutes, a fire can become life-threatening. In five minutes, a residence can be engulfed in flames” (FEMA). The benefit of having so many resources available is clear: Anyone who can read the material and present it to the target audience can teach fire safety. This is part of the reason that more and more local, small fire departments are having ‘Open House’ events. Equipped with a variety of materials, handouts, and then followed by a tour of the firehouse, local volunteers are able to more readily communicate the fire safety message to groups of children at a time. When looked at as a whole, all of the organizations promoting fire safety seem to advertise very similar safety tips: ‘Have working smoke detectors’, ‘Use caution when using space heaters’, ‘Never leave a stove unattended’. However, with the number of home related, particularly cooking, fires that are still occurring, it appears that retention and general attitude toward fire safety may be a bigger issue than education is. The only way to cure this segment of the problem is to change the views and habits of the entire nation – an undertaking, indeed. In spite of this outwardly complex task, fire prevention professionals take pride in making a difference in the name of safety, with the understanding that if even one life was saved, the effort was well worth it.
This realization that people can be taught but not changed was addressed by author and educator Lawrence Whitman in his 1979 book Fire Prevention, further demonstrating that the attitude taken by Americans has not changed much over the past 30 years when it comes to practicing and not just listening about fire safety. Whitman suggested that, “…it is necessary to develop year-round [fire prevention] programs…” in order to keep the public interested and on top of fire safety (8). Whitman also seems to frown on the typical approach of many prevention programs that focus efforts during October’s Fire Prevention Week activity’s, suggesting that a more impacting approach could be achieved by a program that was spread out over a year, acting as a constant reminder of fire’s dangerous aspects (281-282). In the book’s abstract, Whitman brings up yet another concerning facet of the puzzle dealing with the general public attitude: “[Americans] also do not recognize the possible repercussions of fires in which they are not personally involved” (front cover abstract). This sentence identifies a key flaw in some people’s thinking process; people who believe that ‘it won’t happen to me’. It appears that the fire numbers and figures may prove these people wrong; however it does not look as if the attitude has changed, even when flaws have been exposed. Again, these thought processes and attitudes are not easily swayed.
From the beginning, man has realized the awesome power that fire can have. Cities and civilizations alike have fallen because of it. Professionals spend extensive hours training on, and then applying, laws and codes to keep the public safe. Organizations produce countless pamphlets and varied training programs in order to promote safety education. With the tools and the drive to enforce and educate, fire prevention officials continue to encourage safety in American’s lives with documented success, but only to the extent that the public will allow. It is with all of these ideas observed together that Americans can strive to better understand fire safety and its importance in our lives. We must learn from the past as we press into the future, we must change our attitude about fire and its ability to harm and damage, and we must “Learn Not to Burn”.
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