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What are the Odds?

I read the article titled "Families of "Charleston 9" Reach Partial Settlement" posted on the Firehouse.com, and the memory of that tragedy got my blood boiling again. What a shame! Nine firefighters died in that disaster, and now three years later and in these tough economic times, their families are settling for mere "chump change."

Comparing to some of the lucrative settlements that you read about in the papers around the country, fact of the matter is that unfortunately my friends, it seems that the firefighters' lives are not viewed too high. I don't put a price on lives, and in my mind no amount of money would bring our lost brothers in Charleston back to their loved ones.

But as you know, outside of our own fire service circle which is more focused on the fire and safety of community, for the rest of the business world, it all goes down to the basics, to the very root, money.

Everything, including human lives, has a price tag. And decisions are in an essence boil down to a cost/benefit analysis. Simply, what benefits are delivered for what cost.

With the economic challenges that our country has been struggling with for the past few years, it is even more evident that the cost of providing for the safety of our public and our firefighters, is not at the top of the priority list for many municipalities throughout the country.

Take a quick look all around and you see all these brown-outs, fire station closures, and firefighter layoffs that are impacting most of the fire departments across the country. You have to wonder how our public would be better served and protected in the future? And, what about the safety of our firefighters?

I truly can understand economic struggles, and as a result the tough organizational decisions that our elected officials and decision-makers have to make to survive and make the ends meet. It is not easy by any means. But then, if done right and with full knowledge of the consequences and impacts of such decisions, it is easier to justify the wisdom and much more palatable to digest.

Look at it this way, in our own household, we make budgetary decisions and have a priorities expenditure list. And when it comes to make a decision to spend money, food and shelter come way before entertainment and leisure.And if or when one of the breadwinners (if not the sole one) of the household lose their income, then although health insurance is of the highest importance for all families, but more than likely gradually and yet unwillingly, they would decide to put the food on the table for their kids, rather then keep their health insurance.  Not that it’s right, but quite understandable.

Across the country, too many families are faced with making just such decisions, despite knowing full well the consequences of not having the insurance. Hoping that nothing happens to them and they won't get sick.

The same also applies with their automobile insurance. They just take a chance and roll the dice. It is not right, but then there are plenty of uninsured motorists around.

Well, the same basic economic principles apply to our jurisdictions during these tough economic times.

Just like the families impacted, where illness and the need for health insurance is a secondary priority and they try not to get sick, or they drive carefully not to get into an accident, jurisdictions take a leap of faith too and roll the dice, believing the probabilities of catastrophic fires and emergencies are minuscule.

So as you can see all across the country, most municipalities have decided to cut the fire departments' budget.

Not that I agree, but at least their decisions could be better understood, if the elected officials and policy-makers were fully aware of the consequences of their decisions.

In my mind, such cuts would undoubtedly have a drastic impact not only on their communities' fire protection and life safety, but also on the safety of their firefighters.

Are the elected officials fully aware of what is truly at stake? Are they willing to accept those consequences for many years to come? Or are they just looking ahead just as far as the next election, so that the short-term gains could be more appealing than the safety of their communities? In that case, is the public fully aware of those issues and the consequences?

I believe that we must educate our elected officials and public administrators. We must provide them with a true community risk assessment and fire loss management plan. This will allow them to make well-informed decisions based on the community's needs and the availability of current resources, while being fully cognizant of the long-term impacts of their decisions.

And we must also better inform our public so that they are well aware and willing to accept the consequences of the decisions that are made on their behalf today, which could have adverse impacts on their lives for many years to come.

Bottom line is that as public servants, based on our professional obligations and fiduciary responsibilities, all that we really can do, is to inform and provide the public and their elected officials with the detailed risk assessments, so that they can make better educated decisions for their communities.

It is all about being fully aware of the real magnitude of the problem and knowing what the stakes are.

After all is said and done, just like anything else in life, it all boils down to being able to live with the consequences of their decisions. And then if at the end of the day, they decide to cut the levels of fire protection for their community, then so be it. That is truly their right. And their decision will be fully obeyed.

We will then have to adjust and reduce our service delivery to the levels desired by the community.

Quite similar to when the loss of income forces the head of the household to prioritize spending, which could mean having to do without health insurance for a while, for the sake of having food on the dinner table for the kids. Not prudent indeed, but definitely understandable.

Now, looking inside my friends, by the same token, when it comes to down-sizing, the same logic should also apply to our decision-making process in the fire service. When it comes to making a decision to where and what to cut, we must also take the time to analyze the long-tern consequences and impacts of our decisions too.

We must not be too "trigger happy" as we have historically been, and cut our public education and fire prevention programs at a drop of a hat with the first signs of budgetary problems.

Unfortunately though, these days there are way too many examples of public education and fire prevention programs around the country bearing the brunt of the budget assaults, and losing virtually all of their staff if not the entire division.

I intentionally started this article by referencing the Charleston fire tragedy. Because, the panel's investigation report showed that the Charleston disaster was as much about the fire prevention neglects as the tactical fire suppression errors.

Yes, there could have been a fire in Charleston, and yes there probably would have been the same types of tactical errors on the fire ground, since they were trained to do so, for many years.  But, then as the Charleston investigation panel reports showed, the severity and consequences of such a fire would not have been as devastating; and nine firefighters wouldn't have lost their lives, if they had a good fire prevention program.

As I discussed in may article "Rolling the Dice" back in 2008, the panel's investigation report, indicated that six years prior to the Charleston tragedy, they had cut their fire prevention program.

The majority of the constructions were done without any review and permit, and without inspections. The report indicated that discontinuing the fire prevention and inspection programs contributed directly and significantly to the size and progression of the fire and the magnitude of the tragedy in Charleston.

It was not only the tactical fire fighting decisions that were made on the scene on that particular night that led to that tragedy, but also the decisions made many years earlier to ignore the fire prevention programs and to discontinue the fire inspections.

The Charleston Sofa Super Store fire was an overnight tragedy. Yet we must never forget that it was the direct result of many years of accumulated neglect and disregard for the fire prevention and inspection programs.

We must learn that lesson with the hope of not repeating the same mistakes anywhere else in the future.

But then honestly, is Charleston the only jurisdiction in this country that systematically ignored and did not have a high priority for the fire prevention programs? Indeed not.

Fire prevention is about the fire that did not happen. Just like the story of the fish that got away, it is rather hard to prove its value.

Unfortunately though, our story and the fire code are written with blood and sacrifice. The tragic loss in Charleston attests that not only fire prevention is important to the safety of our public and community, it also has direct impact on the firefighters' safety.

Let's face it. The heart of the problem is that we do not truly recognize the importance of the fire prevention programs in protecting our own communities.

Why? Because, we still view the fire prevention programs as non-essential and in a support role function, and without any direct relevance to the firefighters' safety.

We don't view that the fire prevention programs do actually save our own firefighters' lives.

Yet, nine of our brothers in Charleston paid the ultimate price because their leadership displayed just such archaic views of fire prevention and eliminated their fire inspection and maintenance programs.

Philosopher George Santayana said "those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it."

When are we going to truly learn from our past mistakes and stop repeating them over and over in future?

Take a look around you my friends. We have cut too deep, and the public education and fire prevention programs around the country have taken the biggest hits and have been drastically reduced.

That being said because we have forgotten the past we are condemned to repeat it in future.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Then from all the historical fire loss lessons similar to Charleston's, why do we expect any different results next time around when we have virtually eliminated the public education and fire prevention programs?

What would have good 'ole Albert think of us?

We certainly don't view the tremendous value that fire prevention brings to the table in protecting our own firefighters as we should. Thus, as they say here in my gambling town of Las Vegas, we simply roll the dice on the fire prevention programs.

What we tend to downplay is the conceptual relationship between frequency and probability of an event versus the consequences and the final outcome.

The frequency and probability of having a fire like they had in Charleston might be small. But as we saw, the consequences of such fire is tragic.

Fire prevention programs assist us in lowering the probabilities of such events occurring, and drastically decrease the magnitude of the consequences.

Logically then, fire prevention programs must be viewed as an integral part and one of the most significant functions of all fire departments. And, it must be viewed as a much higher priority for the fire service.

It is time that we finally recognize that by cutting the fire prevention programs, not only do we roll the dice and risk the safety of our community, but also the lives of our own firefighters.

Fire prevention is just as much about the protection of our own firefighters as it is for the safety of our community.

Cutting the public education and fire prevention programs during the tough economic times is nothing more than rolling the dice on probabilities and gambling on the future outcome. The consequences could far outweigh the perceived immediate cost savings.

What are the odds? Well, take it from a local -- a heck of a lot higher than the probability of becoming a millionaire by hitting the mega jackpot in Las Vegas.

AZARANG (OZZIE) MIRKHAH P.E., CBO, EFO, CFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is the Fire Protection Engineer for the City of Las Vegas Department of Fire & Rescue. Ozzie served on the national NFPA 13 Technical Committee for Sprinkler System Discharge Design Criteria and serves on the IAFC Fire Life Safety Section Board of Directors. He was the first recipient of the IAFC's Excellence in Fire and Life Safety Award in 2007. Ozzie has participated in two Radio@Firehouse podcasts: Six Days, Six Fires, 19 Children and 9 Adults Killed and Fire Marshal's Corner. You can reach Ozzie by e-mail at amirkhah@lasvegasnevada.gov.

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