Can You Live With The Consequences
Photo credit: Illustration by Paul Combs/ArtStudioSeven.Com
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Sixty two years ago, as a result of President Truman's directive, the President's Conference on Fire Prevention convened in Washington D.C., from May 6-8, 1947. In his keynote speech, Truman stated: "The serious losses in life and property resulting annually from fires cause me deep concern. I am sure that such unnecessary waste can be reduced. The substantial progress made in the science of fire prevention and fire protection in this country during the past forty years convinces me that the means are available for limiting this unnecessary destruction."
It is important to recognize that, despite the title, the 1947 conference was not specifically about fire prevention. The focus of the conference was on a comprehensive assessment of the country's fire service and an in-depth analysis of the fire problem in America. As a result, the attendees recognized that fire prevention deserves a lot more attention and a much higher priority in addressing the fire problem in our country than ever before. They emphasized the three E's of fire prevention; Education, Enforcement, and Engineering as equally important parts of a nationwide comprehensive fire prevention program.
Percy Bugbee, National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) legendary General Manager, was one of the main speakers at this conference. In his speech Bugbee, emphasized heavily the importance of public education and stated:
"Fires, like epidemics of disease or crime, can be stamped out successfully only through the collective will and action of society as a whole. The failure of society to prevent fires has been due to the fact that up to now the average American citizen has not appreciated that nearly all fires are due to simple, easily understood acts of carelessness or neglect. Once every man, woman, and child realizes and accepts in daily life the responsibility for simple fire prevention measures, death, injury, and destruction by fire will be substantially reduced. It is worth emphasizing that the failure of society to prevent fires is not due to any mysterious and unknown action of fire. There is hardly any field of scientific investigation where more work has been done than in the field of fire protection and fire prevention. The knowledge as to the causes of fires and how to prevent them and protect against them is available."
Percy Bugbee's professional accomplishments were outlined in a recent article titled "Looking Back," in the 2008 November/December issue of the NFPA Journal. The article mentioned that Bugbee had obtained his engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and yet "although an engineer, Bugbee came to believe that technology alone could not bring about a fire safe world." This explains the reason for Bugbee's emphasis on the importance of our public education efforts in his 1947 speech.
Of course, Bugbee was in agreement with Truman, that the technology to answer the fire problem in our country has been around for decades. But then, he believed that much more emphasis should be put on the Educational aspect of our fire prevention duties. He believed that we in the fire service must better educate our public about the dangers of fire and inform them about the consequences of their decisions, and their own roles and responsibilities for their own personal safety.
Now, let's fast-forward a tad to our current times. Through decades of our persistent efforts and strong participation in the code development process, last year, we were finally successful in getting the residential fire sprinkler requirements into the main body of the International Residential Code (IRC).
Despite our success in achieving an overwhelming two-thirds majority of the floor votes in Minneapolis last September, our well-respected opponents, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), has still not acknowledged and accepted this monumental fire and life safety achievement. They are determined to fight against it every step of the way.
Now that the residential fire sprinkler requirement is in the 2009 edition of the IRC code, NAHB is mounting pressure on the states and the local jurisdictions all across the country, to not adopt the 2009 edition of the IRC code at all, or at the very least, yank the residential fire sprinkler requirements out of it.
Even more disturbing is the fact that since their failed attempt in Minneapolis last year, NAHB has been lobbying state legislatures in many of the states, not only to prevent them from adopting these building construction codes, but also to strike away the rights of the local jurisdictions to adopt any building construction codes that are more stringent than the minimum adopted state codes.
My last article titled "What's at Stake" focused on informing our fire service peers about this dangerous trend, that if successful, would allow the special interest groups to dictate the level of community safety and fire protection based on their own meager financial interests.
Undoubtedly, this could have a devastating impact not only on our communities' fire protection and life safety, but also on the safety of our own firefighters for many decades to come.
My friends, it is rather simple. 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 our decisions. It is all about being fully aware of the real magnitude of the problem and knowing what the stakes are. We must be well-informed and be willing to accept the consequences of the decisions that we make today, which will have drastic impact on our lives for many years to come.
That being said, now, even more than ever before, we must truly recognize and appreciate the depth of Bugbee's perspectives. If the public is not well-informed about the problem itself and aware of the consequences of their own decisions, then technology alone will not be enough to address the fire problem.
Bugbee's wisdom is evident in his views that besides utilizing the available technology, we must intensify our focus on better educating our public if we truly intend to substantially reduce the devastation caused by fires in our country.
Bugbee urged us to educate our public so that they are aware of the fire problem and can recognize what is at stake. Knowing the risk factors, failure probabilities and consequences, they are able to make well-informed decisions about their own safety and that of their communities. Simply said, they must truly believe in the fact that preventing fires is everyone's responsibility.
I believe that Bugbee was absolutely right. Although many things have changed in the past six decades, much still remains the same. If we want to address the fire problem in our country and have safer communities, then we must educate our public about the fire problem and the consequences of their decisions. And that is the same for our public officials too.
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 such decisions.
Our state legislatures and elected officials at all government levels must be aware that the strength and the integrity of the building construction codes developed at the national levels, are the backbone of our communities' life safety and fire protection. And that true consequence of reductions in the levels of life safety requirements identified in these codes, merely for the purposes of appeasing the special interest groups and relieving their mounting political pressures, would only lead to increased property losses, civilian fire fatalities and injuries, and endangered safety of our firefighters.
Are the state legislators and elected officials aware of what is truly at stake? Are they willing to accept these consequences for many decades to come? Are they willing to jeopardize the safety of our communities, merely for the financial gain of the special interest groups? Is our public fully aware of these issues? The key then is to focus our efforts on better educating our public and our elected officials.
We have known for a long time that if we educate our kids while they are still young, their minds can absorb all the information that we provide them. Then they will have a better understanding and remember the basic fundamentals of fire and life safety when they grow up. Yet, we don't spend much effort on educating them later on in life when they have greater capacity to understand and change behavior, but we should!
We must start with ourselves first. We need to be well versed on effective fire prevention measures and come to believe that prevention is everyone's job and not a threat to suppression. A true firefighter is dedicated to protecting the community and his/her brothers and sisters from the menace of fire, and chooses the best tactics to win the fight every time. When the fire is burning, they do their jobs. They also work diligently to prevent fires from endangering lives, supporting fire prevention codes and training the public, officials, and their peers in fire prevention tactics so they can join the fight against the devastating impacts of fire on our communities.
Just as I was thinking about these issues and pondering how we can better communicate with the public we serve, I received an e-mail from a good friend of mine asking for my input on his article. This friend is a fire service leader and we share similar views on very many issues. He has an amazing talent for storytelling and has superb penmanship. In his own style, he explains the most complex fire service leadership and risk management issues to people of all ages.
When I read the draft of his article titled "The Three Little Pigs," I was truly elated. I thought that it was a brilliant idea to revive those old childhood stories and the famous fables to be able to strike a chord and communicate with our public. After all, what better way to educate our public about the importance of solid prevention and risk management measures, the consequences and failure analysis, than to write an article about "The Three Little Pigs & The Big Bad Wolf?"
You all probably remember the story from the nursery rhymes quite well. But as a brief refresher, the story is about these three little pigs who left their mother's home to be independent and live their lives in their own way and build their own homes. Each went about constructing their homes differently based on their personal preference.
The first little pig built his house with straw. Maybe he was an environmentalist and believed in energy efficient "green" buildings. Maybe ease of construction and labor cost concerns were his reasons for his choice of building construction methods. Perhaps no one had ever pointed out the benefits of fire safe construction. No one knows, since the original author didn't explore that angle of the story.
The second little pig made his house with wood and sticks. Maybe he was aware of the better flame spread properties of wood versus the straw. Regardless though, he built his house with the construction materials of his choice.
And, finally the third little pig made his house with bricks. Rumor has it that he might have been quite conscious about his safety and security, knowledgeable about the materials and construction methods, and knew his building construction codes quite well.
Meanwhile, the big bad wolf in the neighborhood got wind of the arrival of these newcomers to his neck of the woods and decided to pay them a visit for lunch. The big bad wolf's first stop was the straw house. The first little pig saw the big bad wolf and decided not to open the door when he heard the knocks. Not being the patient type, the wolf huffed and puffed, and with his first attempt blew the straw house away. There was nothing there at all to protect the first little pig. He met a very tragic ending. I guess the straw house was no match for the intent and the strength of the critter's destructive will.
Sigh. Only if the first little pig was a little more safety conscious and had known the consequences of his decisions during the construction phase of his little house.
Being greedy, the big bad wolf decided to visit the second house made out of wood and sticks. And, again, since the second little pig decided not to open the door, the big bad wolf huffed and puffed, and after a few attempts was successful in having a lunch meeting with the second little pig.
I guess the second little pig had thought that the strength and durability of his lightweight construction stick house would suffice and could protect him from hazards during such emergency encounters. Not quite. Thus, he did not live with the consequences of his poor decisions, quite literally. Would he have made the same decisions if he had known? I don't think so.
Being on the success streak, the big bad wolf then decided to visit the third little pig living in the brick house. The third little pig heard the knocking on the door. He took a quick peek out of the little peep-hole and decided to decline the big bad wolf's invitation for lunch, and barricaded himself in.
The big bad wolf, not accustomed to rejection, decided to use his old proven huff and puff strategy to bring the third little pig to submission. But, the third little pig's wise decision to build his house based on the safety requirements of the latest edition of the building construction codes proved to be the smartest thing he ever did to save his life! All of the big bad wolf's huffing and puffing did not have any impact on the structural integrity of the house at all.
Not giving up so easily, the big bad wolf decided to revise his strategy and tried to sneak in the house through the chimney. That proved not to be the smartest decision that the big bad wolf had made. Not being aware of the big pot of boiling water in the fireplace below him, the big bad wolf descended down the chimney. Suffice to say that the consequence of the big bad wolf's final decision was quite tragic.
You see my friends, it all boils down to (no pun intended) being well-informed, making the right decisions, and being able to live with the consequence of those decisions. This applies to the wolves and the pigs just the same. It is that simple.
The "Three Little Pigs & The Big Bad Wolf" is great to entertain the kids, but as you can see, it can also be quite an important and useful tool to educate audiences of all ages about the importance of the building construction codes.
I don't know, but just maybe, if 62 years ago, Bugbee had expressed his perspectives about the importance of fire prevention and public education by writing a similar story titled "The Three Little Pigs & The Big Bad Wolf"" by now our public might have truly grasped the wisdom in his views that "once every man, woman, and child realizes and accepts in daily life the responsibility for simple fire prevention measures, death, injury, and destruction by fire will be substantially reduced."
Maybe, just maybe, if our legendary Francis Brannigan, the author of the famous "Building Construction for the Fire Service" book, had watered it down a tad and written a simplified version of it and titled it "The Three Little Pigs & The Big Bad Wolf" our firefighters would have finally grasped his wisdom by now and would truly "know their enemy". Maybe, just maybe, we would then not lose firefighters lives in the lightweight construction structural collapses.
One thing is for sure though. There are always wolves around in a variety of shapes, sizes, forms, appearances, organizational alliances, special interest groups, etc. We will always have opponents whose interests contradict the safety of our public, communities, and our very own safety. Today, it might be the homebuilders that want to have full control of the building construction codes and oppose the residential fire sprinkler and the carbon monoxide detector requirements in the residential codes. But then who knows what will come tomorrow?
The point is we must first fully recognize the importance of fire prevention and building construction codes ourselves. We must then educate our public and our elected officials about the risks and the consequences of their decisions in adopting these codes. And we must request that they don't bow down to the political influences of these special interest groups in pressuring them to adopt local codes that are lower than the nationally developed building construction codes.
I truly believe in Truman's challenge to the 1947 Fire Prevention Conference, in which he stated that "it is the clear responsibility of every State and local official, and every citizen, to aggressively support this national war against the growing menace of fire."
With the current economic challenges that our country is battling, and with the budget cuts that the fire service is facing all across the land, today it is even more important than ever before for us all to intensify our efforts to better educate our public about the menace of fire.
We are well aware that shutting down fire stations and laying off firefighters have direct and immediate impacts on our communities' levels of fire safety. But, we also need to recognize that eliminating the pubic education programs, laying off fire inspectors and reducing our code enforcement capabilities, and allowing the special interest groups to dictate adoption of less stringent building construction codes, have long term impacts and reduce our community's safety as well.
When the elected officials are better informed about the basic concepts of community risk assessment and integrated risk management, they could then make better decisions in performing their responsibilities in mitigating hazards and protecting their communities.
Logically then, a major part of our public education efforts must be on better informing our elected officials, so that they are well aware of the true magnitude of failure, and the direct impact and consequences of their decisions on their communities' levels of life safety and fire protection.
It is important that we realize the wisdom in the old saying that "you reap the harvest that you sow". Don't believe me? Just ask the "Three Little Pigs & The Big Bad Wolf."
AZARANG (OZZIE) MIRKHAH P.E., CBO, EFO, 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. To read Ozzie's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.