Money Talks

We have all heard about what happens when money talks.

That saying is a clear depiction of what really matters most when it comes to substance. It attests to the true power of the mighty dollar, even at this day and age when our economy is not as strong as in the years past.

That is the precise reason why, in all my articles, I focus more extensively on the national economic impact of fire. Of course, just like the rest of my peers in the fire service, saving lives and protecting our public is my most important concern and primary objective. But, let's face it; to the bean-counters and the policy-makers of the world, the mighty dollar speaks much louder and with better clarity.

To us, saving lives and rescuing the helpless babies from the burning building means the most. But, to the budgeting people and the decision-makers, the fact that there were 3,430 civilian fire deaths in 2007, and the home fires accounted for 2,865 (84 percent) of that, doesn't have the same deep meaning as it does for us. And that my friends, is quite logical if you view them as mere statistics.

After all, when you compare our national fire fatality statistics with other statistics, it seems rather insignificant. For example back in 2007, there were an estimated 12,988 people killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes. And, of course, there are plenty of other types of national fatality statistics that are even significantly higher than the alcohol-impaired fatalities. So then, if the fatality statistics alone were to be the primary factor for establishing the societal expenditure priorities, fire service would be somewhere at the bottom of the pile, wouldn't it?

But then, the adverse economic impacts of fire are quite significant and can not be easily ignored. And that is the exact angle that we must focus on when dealing with the elected officials and the decision-makers at all levels of government. We in the fire service need to better understand their logic to be able to better communicate with them. To them, money talks. So let's talk money with them.

National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) March 2009 report titled "The Total Cost of Fire in the United States" indicates that "in 2006, the total cost of fire was an estimated $317 billion or 2.8 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP)." Now, that is not chump change, is it?

Logically, these types of economic statistics should grab the attention of the bean-counters and decision-makers, shouldn't it? There are those who will say no. They say that they believe as a result of decisions made by irresponsible, unaccountable, self-centered policy-makers, we are facing the recent economic failures that have broken all the paradigms and has dragged us into a new low; where even the term "billion" has lost its true significance and value. They would say that nothing is going to wake up those decision-makers and make them smell the coffee. After all, if they had the foresight, and were not so focused on their own immediate gains, we would not be in the pickle that we are in now.

But, I think otherwise. I am an optimist at heart. I believe that if anything at all is going to grab the decision-makers' attention, make them see the light and recognize the true magnitude of the fire problem in our country, it is the good old mighty dollar. The mighty dollar plays a role on both sides of the loss/gain equation. For the decision-makers, the evaluations are merely based on the cost/benefit analysis. Logically, if the benefits and savings far outweigh the costs, then the expenditures are well justified. A good rate of return on the investment, or as they say "the biggest bang for the buck," would make our case much more attractive for the decision-makers at both the local and national levels of government. We must have a net positive value, which means that we must save more for our public than we cost them.

The concept should work at all levels of government, local and national. The focus of this article though, is on the national level and the impact that the national decisions could have at the local levels.

As I have discussed in all my previous articles, I believe that the federal government, through their various federal grants, could be a great impetus for change and could have a significant impact in decreasing the economic devastations caused by fire. In doing so, it will save lives too, both civilians and firefighters. The key for long term success is making sure that the mighty dollar is best utilized to bring about tangible positive results. We must take measures that have a direct positive impact in reducing the fire fatalities and decreasing the economic burdens of fire in our country.

This of course, is by no means a new concept and I am not the first one to talk about it either. Much smarter fire service leaders, back in the 1987 America Burning Revisited report, discussed the very same concept and stated "Government and other institutions can encourage fire safety by offering financial incentives (i.e. tax rebates or reductions) to those who do not have fires, practice fire safety behavior or install automatic fire protection systems."

And no, they didn't just come to this conclusion out of the clear blue sky either. They saw that there were other successful examples of where the federal government, through their federal grant programs, was able to be the impetus of change at the local levels.

Using the federal grants to hold the local governments accountable for implementing improvements is what the federal government has done quite well through many of their national agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), just to name a few.

Let's take a look at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for example. Based on the information provided on their website, EPA is responsible for researching and setting national standards for a variety of environmental programs, and delegates to the states and tribes the responsibility for issuing permits and for monitoring and enforcing compliance. Where national standards are not met, EPA can issue sanctions and take other steps to assist the states and tribes in reaching the desired levels of environmental quality.

EPA delegates the responsibility to the states and then through their federal grants and sanctions program they seek compliance with the national standards. I ask myself if it works well for them, then why not for us? Why can't we learn from others and use their successful models to assist us in addressing the fire problem in our country?

I believe that to address the fire problem in our country, similar to the EPA, we should be "setting the national standards", and then through enforcement reach the "desired levels" of safety. Why shouldn't we utilize the federal grants program to require the states and local jurisdictions to comply with the minimum fire and life safety provisions outlined in the most recent edition of the codes and standards developed by the International Code Council (ICC) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)?

As for setting the national standards, I believe that in the absence of a true set of national building construction codes in our country, it is indeed every states' right and very appropriate for the states to adopt and establish their own building construction code based on the ICC and NFPA codes and standards. But, then these state codes must only be the minimum and not the maximum. Each of the local jurisdictions then has the right to exceed those minimum state codes, but is prohibited to be less restrictive.

Similarly, we could use the federal grant and sanctions program to seek compliance with the national standards. How about requiring that states applying for federal grants must adopt the most recent editions of the building, fire, and construction codes as the base minimum and they should not be less stringent than the minimum requirements of the nationally developed codes?

Why do I suggest this now? Because the national building construction codes establish the minimum levels of protection, thus reducing them even further down could not benefit our communities. It would only help the special interest groups with their financial interests, but would decrease fire protection for our public. And to me, as a fire service member protecting our people and our communities from the wrath of fire is my prime objective.

These special interest groups are on the offensive at the state levels to prevent the states from adopting the 2009 edition of the national building construction codes. Or, as a minimum, their goals is to cherry pick and throw away the fire protection and life safety measures such as the carbon monoxide detectors and the residential fire sprinkler requirements in these codes.

Let me be as clear as I can be. Right now as you read this article, there is a strong lobbying effort by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) at the various states legislatures asking them to bypass adoption of the 2009 edition of the ICC codes, or at the very least remove the requirement for residential fire sprinklers out of the codes. The policy-makers are influenced by the money NAHB spends on lobbying all across the country. If they don't see and recognize that there is an adverse economic impact to their decisions, then they will side with the NAHB every single time. How would that impact fire protection and life safety in our communities? Surely, the results would not be positive for the citizens we protect.

As I had stated in my previous article titled "What's at Stake", for the past few months the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has made systematic, behind-the-scene maneuvering at the states level with the intent to erode the rights of the jurisdictions to adopt and enhance building construction codes at the local levels. This indeed is an outrageous overreach and sets a terrible precedent endangering the lives of the public and firefighters alike.

These special interest groups want the state legislators to grant them the right to adopt their own substandard building construction codes as they deem appropriate in serving their needs. And, to make matters even worse, they want the state legislatures to disallow the local jurisdictions from adopting a more stringent building construction code.

Money talks! And, the home builders are making a lot of political contributions across the country, and their voices are being heard at the state levels. At the state legislative level, the decision-makers are not at all familiar with the construction codes. Yet, one thing that those people, who know nothing about building and fire codes, all understand; is money. They are also well accustomed to review issues based on the cost-benefit analysis. And, if the possible gains are much smaller than the probable losses, they will not risk such investment. Logically (although politics and logic do not perfectly match) then, they would not risk losing federal grants for their jurisdiction for the sake of mere political contributions and personal gains. Money talks!

The state legislatures must realize that there could be an adverse financial impact on their jurisdiction as a direct result of their attempt to appease the NAHB in lowering the safety of our communities. And, guess what? If the magnitude of that adverse financial impact for non-compliance is significant enough, then they will think twice before granting NAHB's wish. After all, the state legislators and politicians are very pragmatic when it comes to money.

This way the states and local jurisdictions can have their Constitutional right to adopt any/all codes that they want. But, then they should not qualify to receive federal grants if they lower the national standards. After all, why should the taxpayers give them money to build substandard structures?

The point is that fire and life safety for the occupants and the firefighters alike must be respected and provided for as required by the national standards. Let the states and locals decide then. States and local jurisdictions can adopt anything they want. That is their right. But, if it is anything less than the nationally developed building and construction codes, then they won't receive the federal grants. How about that?

Am I asking for something that is unprecedented and too unreasonable? Is this approach too radical and way out in left field? Before you nod your head and answer yes, let me tell you that the very same organization that our beloved United States Fire Administration (USFA) resides in, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) utilizes this very same approach with their floods program.

Take a look at FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and then ask yourself why wouldn't the same concept work for fire?

If FEMA can do it for floods, then why couldn't USFA (which is also part of FEMA) do the same for fire? On FEMA's website it states:

"The Mitigation Directorate, a component of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), manages National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)...Nearly 20,000 communities across the United States and its territories participate in the NFIP by adopting and enforcing floodplain management ordinances to reduce future flood damage. In exchange, the NFIP makes Federally backed flood insurance available to homeowners, renters, and business owners in these communities. Community participation in the NFIP is voluntary.... Flood insurance is designed to provide an alternative to disaster assistance to reduce the escalating costs of repairing damage to buildings and their contents caused by floods. Flood damage is reduced by nearly $1 billion a year through communities implementing sound floodplain management requirements and property owners purchasing of flood insurance. Additionally, buildings constructed in compliance with NFIP building standards suffer approximately 80 percent less damage annually than those not built in compliance."

Why can't we do the same? Our economic loses are much greater than the floods and we lose more lives in fires. So why can't FEMA who already has the means and the organizational structure to implement such policies do the same for us on the fire side of the house?

Just take a look at the following 2007 fire loss statistics from the NFPA and then decide for yourself if these statistics warrant similar federal incentive programs to address the fire problem.

"In 2007, U.S. fire departments responded to 399,000 home structure fires. These fires caused 13,600 civilian injuries, 2,865 civilian deaths, $7.4 billion in direct damage...In 2007, home structure fires caused 84% of the civilian fire deaths and 77% of the civilian fire injuries. Homes include one-and two-family dwellings, apartments, townhouses, row houses, and manufactured homes...Sprinklers decrease the fire death rate per 1,000 reported residential fires by 77% and the average loss per residential fire by 63%."

If FEMA's flood program works well, then we should use that same concept to help address the fire problem in our country too. Look at it this way, although the "community participation in the NFIP is voluntary", jurisdictions who want to receive the benefits would have to adopt and enforce the nationally adopted codes. Call it incentive or disincentive, it works, and the local communities "voluntarily" participate by adopting and enforcing those codes.

Why can't we do that? Now, imagine if we had that in place. Do you think that the state legislatures would opt for losing their federal grants just to appease the special interest groups opposing the residential fire sprinklers? I believe that having a similar federal grant (incentive/disincentive) program could be a valuable tool to persuade the states to not fall for the NAHB's manipulations.

Einstein had said that "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it". We need to elevate and enhance our level of consciousness by "thinking outside the box" and learning from the successful examples of others. We need to establish similar types of performance measurements and qualification guidelines that would encourage the states to adopt and enforce the most recent editions of the nationally developed building construction codes to qualify for receiving federal grants. Without it, the special interest groups will keep on eroding the construction codes to suit their own financial needs and that would only result in prolongation of the fire problem in our country.

To succeed in the long run, we need to work from all directions, top to bottom, and even more importantly the grassroots efforts all the way from the bottom to the top. As I have mentioned in all of my previous articles, I strongly believe in public education. In educating our public, organizations such as the Common Voices (the recent recipient of the Senator Paul S. Serbanes Fire Service Safety Leadership Award at the CFSI) could play a very significant role.

Common Voices could follow the successful example of yet another nationally well-known grassroots life safety organization, the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). After decades of hard work, MADD was successful in their efforts and all states eventually adopted the National Minimum Drinking Age act of 1984 or they would be subjected to a 10% decrease in their annual federal highway apportionment.

My friends, my intent for bringing up the NFIP example wasn't the establishment of a national fire insurance program. That example was only mentioned along with the MADD example just to show that there are also other ways that we, in the fire service, need to explore if we are serious about addressing the fire problem in our country. I am sure there are plenty more examples once we put our minds to it and do more research.

Education is the key, and that starts first with our own in the fire service. Once again Einstein's views are quite applicable where he said "Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning." And, questioning is what we need to do. It should be the very first step in our quest to finding the solutions.

To have a better chance of success and a brighter future, I believe that we, in the fire service, need to learn from our past history. We must evaluate and critique our own performance in implementing the well-known 1973 America Burning report. We must do research and learn more from other similar national successful programs. And, from all these, develop a solid national strategy in promoting fire and life safety solutions to our country's fire problem.

Yes, money talks. And, the politicians and decision-makers are quite attuned to hear it loud and clear. One does not have to be as smart as Einstein to recognize that in talking with these folks, you must cut to the chase and get straight to the bottom line, being money. That is the exact reason why we in the fire service need to focus more on the economics of fire while communicating with them. Statistical cost-benefit analysis is the backbone and the sole factor in their decision-making process.

We, in the fire service, are well aware of the power of the mighty dollar. Yet we can also hear our conscious constantly reminding us that saving lives and protecting our communities are our prime directives. It is time to be bilingual.

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