After 100 Years: The Lesson to be Learned from Triangle Shirtwaist

Anniversaries serve several purposes; to remember, to honor, to get a day off, maybe even an excuse to throw a party and fire up the grill, but most of all, it is supposed to give us the opportunity to remember the sacrifices of those who created the...

Usher in lesson number two resulting from a tragedy; 100 years ago on March 25 at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City, within 30 minutes from the discovery of fire to its extinguishment, an eighth floor fire quickly spread out of control and claimed the life of 146 Triangle workers, the majority of which were female, many jumping to their death, and some as young as 13 years old. They died for the same reasons many before them had died and still die today -- the results of lessons gone unlearned. Still today we do not honor their death.

If there was ever an example of fire protection lessons being ignored, loop holes in the code being exploited, warnings from fire officials going unheeded, the need and justification for sprinkler systems, politics prevailing over common sense -- this fire was it.

As before there were major advancements in the aftermath of this fire. Not only major labor law reforms and the advancement of Woman's Suffrage, but the seeds of the life safety code were planted; and for the first time in building history, we not only looked at the construction of the building as it related to fire safety, but now what we put inside those buildings. Codes written in blood went into the book.

One again fire deaths began to decline, and once again we developed a false sense of security and became complacent; we again stopped progressing, and simply existed in a stagnant state of denial as a false sense of security in the written code took hold.

Lesson Learned

So here is the new lesson to be learned on this 100th anniversary: codes are only part of the solution! Any comprehensive fire prevention program must also have an educational/training element. We could continue to develop the strictest of codes and we could enforce them all to the letter! We could build a building that is 100 percent fire resistant, install a sprinkler system, mount fire extinguishers every 75 feet, install exit signs with life time illumination above double exit doors that swing outward on every exterior wall, etc…yet if we have not taken the time to educate and train the building's occupants…what have we really accomplished?

Without education and training for the occupants: fire resistive walls will be breached, sprinkler systems will not be maintained, sprinkler heads obstructed and used to hang material, fire extinguishers will go unused or not used correctly or go un-serviced or be hidden due to their un-decorative appearance, exits will be locked and egress paths obstructed, business staff will not know how to react and panic will ensue…you get the picture?

While we could catch these violations during routine inspections, for those few departments that have the resources to do routines inspections and visit each building in their jurisdiction every year, we all know what happens once the inspector leaves the building…everything goes back to business as usual. While we may have enforced the code, we have not educated and that lack of education equates to ignorance which breeds indifference, and both are the cause of 99.9 percent of all unintentional fires.

If you are a student of fire in the fire service, and anyone calling themselves a professional in any endeavor should always continue to be a student and continue to study and learn, and you study fires and fire deaths, the lesson to be taught is that we cannot rely on codes alone to solve our fire problem. A true prevention program has a codes element and an education/training element.

Anniversaries in the fire service offer us an opportunity to do such study, and on this tragic anniversary there is much we need to learn to prevent it from occurring again; as professionals in the fire service profession, we owe that to the victims, to their families, to potential future victims, and to our fellow firefighters who will risk their lives at these fires. We have a moral conviction to do everything and anything we can that will lead to saving a protecting, and we need to start learning.

DANIEL BYRNE, a Contributing Editor, is a firefighter/paramedic, with the Burton Fire District in Burton, SC. A 20-year veteran of the emergency services, he holds both an associate and bachelors degree in fire science, is a National Fire Academy Alumni, and a veteran of the Desert Shield/Storm war with the U.S. Marine Corps. Daniel is the recipient of local and state awards for public educations and relations. Daniel is moderator of the Fire Prevention and Life Safety forums on Firehouse and has been guest on two podcasts: 2010 Fire and Life Safety Roundtable and Developing and Adapting Successful Fire Prevention Applications. View all of Daniel's magazine and online articles here. You can reach Daniel by e-mail at