By Pete Wicklund
GREEN BAY — While the number of fire deaths nationwide has declined, fire protection professionals cannot rest on their laurels and must be vigilant to threats to reduce or eliminate standards intended to keep the public safe.
That was the underlying message given by Jim Pauley, president and chief executive officer of the National Fire Protection Association, during his keynote address at the 2017 Wisconsin State Fire Inspectors Association Fire Professional Conference.
Pauley began his talk, held Oct. 25 at the Radisson Hotel and Conference Center in Green Bay, with some statistics that on the surface appear encouraging: The number of civilian fire deaths in the U.S. has decreased from 7,395 in 1977 to 3,390 in 2016 − a 54 percent drop.
Smoke alarms, building standards, effective enforcement and public education efforts − all of these have contributed to the reduction in fire deaths and reducing overall loss, said Pauley, an electrical engineer by profession who has led the NFPA since 2014.
Yet statistics show that there still is work to be done. In 2016, fire departments in the U.S. responded to a fire every 24 seconds. A structure fire was reported every 60 seconds. Roughly 3,000 are still dying from fire each year in the U.S.
“I would argue that one fire death is far too many,” Pauley said. “We know the vast majority of those deaths are preventable.”
Pauley’s talk was two months before an apartment fire in New York City claimed the lives of 12 people. But he noted several recent fires around the globe that underscore the fact that the job of fire prevention specialists is far from done. One example: the “Ghost Ship” artists’ colony fire on Dec. 2, 2016, in Oakland, Calif., that killed 36 people.
“It was a warehouse building at one point and then the occupancy changed. At the time of the fire, people were living and working there. It appeared to fly under the radar of adequate fire inspection and code enforcement. The building lacked basic safety requirements,” Pauley said. “Those occupying the building took little action to speak up to protect themselves prior to the fire.”
Pauley noted that fire prevention specialists are seeing new challenges that didn’t exist 10 years ago.
“Our role is different today. Fires are different. The challenges we face are indeed different,” he said.
Among the challenges is the use of different types of building materials. A real-life towering inferno, the Grenfell Tower apartment fire on June 14, 2017 in London that took the lives of 80 people is a dramatic example of that factor. The fire’s dramatic spread was attributed to the use of exterior industrial cladding.
“We’ve seen a rash of fires in buildings that are under construction in this country (the U.S.). Many involved similar scenarios – lightweight wood construction that burns faster and hotter than traditional lumber. And they are in buildings that are not yet protected by fire alarms, sprinklers or other productive elements,” Pauley said. “Those fires in buildings under construction pose fire risks that are potentially dramatic proportions and they incur millions of dollars of loss.”
Another key hurdle to the mission of fire prevention and life safety enhancement: indifference on the part of the public and public officials. Indeed the battle over relaxing of building codes in Wisconsin was noted by Green Bay Fire Chief David Litton in his welcoming remarks at the WSFIA conference.
“The codes are under fire. People are trying to change them and I don’t get that,” Chief Litton said. “I never will.”
Pauley elaborated upon the chief’s remarks.
“We are victims of our own success,” he said. “Because we see fewer fires there is a level of complacency that exists among the public and among the policy makers. There is a prevalent ‘it can’t happen to me,’ or ‘it won’t happen here’ attitude.
“That complacency plays out with the public paying less attention to its own safety and by policy makers not fully supporting fire and life safety at a level that is truly necessary,” Pauley said.
As an example, Pauley noted the reluctance to mandate and enforce residential sprinkler codes. He also noted a push among some policy makers to make code cycles run for six years before updates.
“Now think about that. How much change occurs in a six-year time period?” Pauley asked. “Would you buy a new computer or a brand-new car that was built to requirements that were six years old?”
Pauley acknowledged that growing fiscal constraints among states and municipalities is also contributing to cuts in enforcement and relaxation of standards. But he noted that comes with a risk to public safety and property.
“To keep communities safe, a full system of fire protection and prevention has to be in place. Government and other enforcing entities need to adopt and desire to be using the latest versions of codes and standards so they get the benefit of the latest technology, research and collective wisdom in fire, electrical and life safety,” Pauley said.
Don’t diminish public education It’s also part of the equation that the public can’t take safety for granted and be uneducated about fire risks, Pauley noted.
“While we tout the successes of fire alarms, we’re seeing the majority of fires happening in homes with no smoke alarm or without a working smoke alarm. So there’s more to be done on the home front and more to be done in regard to individual responsibility with the need for people to understand fire safety,” Pauley said.
The role of life safety professionals is to put together all of the pieces of what Pauley referred to as “the safety ecosystem.”
There’s not a single answer to the fire problem, Pauley said, “and we might not be able to prevent every tragedy from occurring. But by promoting and recommitting to a full system of fire prevention, protection and education we can work together to save lives and reduce loss.”
Pauley said he knows the fire service looks to the NFPA for guidance and establishing codes, and he elaborated on some of the association’s recent initiatives. But he also noted that the NFPA stresses a collaborative process of working with fire protection professionals and life safety professionals from many professions and industries in establishing its codes and programs.
More on the NFPA’s initiatives can be found at NFPA.org