The Fire Service's 2008 Awakening

As the year comes to an end, I started looking at some of the major accomplishments in the fire service this year, especially in the fire prevention arena. I am proud to say that we have indeed taken great strides. I have always believed that the fire service is the sleeping giant that is destined to wake up some day and play the highest role in our battles to better protect our citizens and reduce the adverse economic impacts of fires to our communities across the land.

I am delighted to see that the sleeping giant is finally waking up. I can't wait for it to really get going after the morning cup of coffee. Just imagine what it can accomplish when it is up and running at peak performance.

In all my articles throughout the years, I have always strongly focused on fire prevention as the best strategy to address the fire problem in our country. It will reduce the adverse economic impacts of fire, decrease the total number of fire injuries and fatalities as well as provide for the highest level of firefighter safety, so that "Everyone Goes Home" to their loved ones at the end their shifts.

Thus, from this perspective, the two most significant fire service accomplishments of this year were the inaugural Vision 20/20: National Strategic Agenda for Fire Loss Prevention forum in Washington D.C. held April. And then, our tremendous success at the International Code Council (ICC) Hearings in Minneapolis, back in September.

At the ICC hearings, we were successful not only in the adoption of the residential fire sprinkler proposal, but also the adoption of 23 of the high-rise safety recommendations developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in their investigations into the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center tragedy.

These two accomplishments are the results of years of hard work by many of my most dedicated peers in the fire service and will undoubtedly have monumental impacts in better protecting our firefighters and citizens. These two accomplishments are very much interrelated, and the level of unprecedented fire service cooperation and coordination among the many major fire service organizations in bringing them together signifies the awakening of our gentle giant.

In 2007, after years of relentless work by my good friend, Fire Marshal Jim Crawford with Vancouver, WA, Fire Department, Vision 20/20 finally sprung to life when the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) - US Branch was awarded a Fire Prevention and Safety Grant by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to develop a comprehensive national strategy for fire prevention. Vision 20/20's National Strategic Agenda for Fire Loss Prevention is a project with the goal of helping to bring together fire prevention efforts and focus everyone's efforts collectively to effectively address the fire problem in the United States.

In April, Vision 20/20 held a very productive two-day forum. Quite literally, this forum was a gathering of a "who's-who" in fire safety attending from across the country as well as the United Kingdom and Australia. There were more than 170 participants representing our nation's fire service and leaders of major national fire protection and safety organizations. The end result of this forum was the report titled "Vision 20/20 National Strategies for Fire Loss Prevention Final Report" that has formulated all their findings and the pertinent recommendations.

The five strategies and the national organizations to facilitate and lead these efforts are listed below:

  • Strategy 1: Increase Advocacy for Fire Prevention - Facilitating Individuals/Organizations: Alan Perdue: International Association of Fire Chiefs, Fire Life Safety Section
  • Strategy 2: Conduct a National Fire Safety Education/Social Marketing Campaign - Facilitating Individuals/Organizations: Jim Crawford, Institute of Fire Engineers - US Branch; Meri-K. Appy, Home Safety Council; Mick Ballesteros, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Paul Schwartzman, Chair, Public Education Section for the National Fire Protection Association
  • Strategy 3: Raise the Importance of Fire Prevention Within the Fire Service - Facilitating Individuals/Organizations: Bill Kehoe, Institute of Fire Engineers - US Branch
  • Strategy 4: Promote Technology to Enhance Fire and Life Safety - Facilitating Individuals/Organizations: Dan Madrzykowski, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Building and Fire Research Laboratory
  • Strategy 5: Refine and Improve the Application of Codes and Standards that Enhance Public and Firefighter Safety and Preserve Community Assets - Facilitating Individuals/Organizations: Sean DeCrane, International Association of Fire Fighters

In a recently released report summarizing the findings and recommendations of their April 2006 conference, titled "Wingspread V - Statements of National Significance to the Fire Service and to Those Served -- fire service unity was strongly emphasized in their position statement.

"The effectiveness of the nation's fire service on the national level depends on cooperation between and among the major fire organizations. Fire service organizational leaders must commit to working together for the common good rather than competing for individual interests. Our lack of a unified voice has been a major stumbling block to political support and funding on the Federal level. Fire chiefs and fire service organizations must come to agreement on the proper response to solve the American fire problem; only then can they speak with one voice that political leaders can hear and act upon."

That being said, take a look at all the people and the major national fire service organizations involved with the five strategies outlined by Vision 20/20, and you will agree with me that our ongoing Vision 20/20 efforts are directly in line with the implementation of the Wingspread recommendation.

I believe that the Vision 20/20 forum brought more focus on the importance of recognizing fire as a national problem and that we must develop a solid game plan and then take measured and coordinated steps to address this problem.

I believe that to be able to succeed in the long run, establishment of two very important organizational mechanisms are of absolute importance. The first is establishing a well-defined inter-organizational mechanism of responsibility and accountability. Secondly, allocating the resources and establishing a mechanism of sustained systematic funding. No, these aren't impossible tasks to accomplish. As a matter of fact we are pretty good at it, but only if we put our minds to it and draw on our extensive fire service organizational experiences.

I believe that to address the national fire problem, it is our professional obligation as the fire service to step up to the plate, take command, and use all our tactical and leadership skills and experiences to best protect our communities. So why not look at this just like another major incident? Using an incident command system (ICS) analogy, we then need to establish a "unified command" to address these long-term challenges. And we need to develop an incident action plan (IAP) to enable us to succeed in our future battles at the local levels.

This is what we are good at and this is how we can best organize to address the complex incidents. And this is as complex as it gets. This challenge is much bigger than any of our fire service organizations alone. We need all of the major fire service players involved. ICS is a team approach that could result in successful accomplishment of our missions. It is adaptable, expandable, versatile, task oriented with a great degree of responsibility, oversight and accountability. That being said, why not use the ICS approach that the fire service is intimately familiar with? After all, just because it is not a major fire or hurricane, it doesn't mean that we can't use the useful ICS concepts, right?

Vision 20/20 forum was a monumental step forward, yet the first step. The giant is only waking up. The second major accomplishment of this year was the well-coordinated efforts of many fire service organizations to actively participate in the construction code development process that led to the successful adoption of many of the fire service's fire and life safety proposals in the ICC Code Hearing in Minneapolis, back in September.

On Sept. 21, we made a historic and monumental accomplishment for the safety of our public all across the nation. As a result of the direct support and extensive involvement from all fire service organizations and many of our fellow public servants, the building officials; we made great fire and life safety enhancements to the ICC's building and fire codes.

Two of the most important proposals that were voted on and approved to be included into the International Residential Code (IRC) were the requirement for installation of carbon monoxide detectors and also the requirement to install residential fire sprinkler systems in all new homes. This was a great victory. Not only for us, but most importantly, for our citizens.

There were also other fire service proposals that were successful in getting adopted into both the building and fire codes, most of which were simply overshadowed by the news of our residential fire sprinkler success. I believe that one of the most important victories for the fire service was the adoption of 23 of the 30 major recommendations of the NIST World Trade Center Investigation.

These fire and life safety improvements will not only better protect the occupants, but also the firefighters. I am delighted that as a direct result of our successful efforts in the code development arena, the future generation of firefighters won't face the same challenges that 343 of our brothers and sisters faced on Sept. 11.

In an article titled "Safer Buildings Are Goal of New Code Changes Based on Recommendations from NIST World Trade Center Investigation," Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez stated "the lessons learned from the tragic events of Sept. 11 have yielded stronger building and fire codes for a new generation of safer, more robust buildings across the nation."

"The new codes address areas such as increasing structural resistance to building collapse from fire and other incidents; requiring a third exit stairway for tall buildings; increasing the width of all stairways by 50 percent in new high-rises; strengthening criteria for the bonding, proper installation and inspection of sprayed fire-resistive materials (commonly known as fireproofing) improving the reliability of active fire protection systems(such as automatic sprinklers; requiring a new class of robust elevators for access by emergency responders in lieu of an additional stairway; making exit path markings more prevalent and more visible; and ensuring effective coverage throughout a building for emergency responder radio communications."

The lead WTC investigator for NIST, Shyam Sunder stated "these code changes are the result of a strong commitment to public safety by the nation's building and fire safety officials, private sector professionals and the fire service. The improvements that they will ensure will be of lasting value to our society."

I believe that the fire service active participation was indeed instrumental in this accomplishment. The fire service giant is gradually waking up and is now realizing its own strength in positively impacting and improving its work environment, the building on fire. We must recognize that it is only through long term commitment and active systematic participation in the code development process that we can better provide for the higher degree of safety and protection of our citizens, our communities, and our own firefighters.

These two major accomplishments -- Vision 20/20 and the successes in the code development arena -- have a common denominator which we must heavily focus on for further development for our future success.

Organizing the fire service to actively participate in the code development process is our task, as identified by Strategy 5 of the Vision 20/20, which is specifically focused on this very important issue. The fire service must maintain the pace and build on this positive momentum to be able to defend our recent fire and life safety gains.

Why? Because, it is important to remember that our opponents in the code development arena, are not necessarily too pleased with the emergence of the fire service giant in better protecting our communities from the devastating impact of fires. To them, our fire and life safety proposals merely translate to financial burdens and inconvenience. Have no doubt that they will make all attempts to wipe out all our fire and life safety gains in the next code adoption cycle, and our next battle will be at the ICC Code Action Hearings in October 2009, in Baltimore. We must be there to protect our communities by repelling their attacks and defending our gains.

Our country's current economic difficulties would make this task rather challenging for all of us in the fire service. With training and travel budgets being cut, even participation in the code development process would not be an easy task, let alone attending the code hearings. Without our active participation, all our hard work and gains could be wiped out.

Here is my suggestion. What better way to spend a very small part of the fire grant, than to make sure that that all the gains that fire service have made in the code development arena in protecting our communities are maintained? I believe that fire prevention has the highest rate of return of the tax payers' investment on the fire service in the form of the fire grants. Then why not, allocate a part of the fire grant for the active participation of the fire service members in the development of the construction codes?

Take a look at the "16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives" that the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) is leading. I believe that initiatives 10, 14, and 15 listed below, clearly help us justify receiving this grant.

  • Initiative 10 - Grant programs should support the implementation of safe practices and/or mandate safe practices as an eligibility requirement.
  • Initiative 14 - Public education must receive more resources and be championed as a critical fire and life safety program.
  • Initiative 15 - Advocacy must be strengthened for the enforcement of codes and the installation of home fire sprinklers.

I believe one of the national organizations that should step to the plate and assist the IAFF in developing Strategy 5 of the Vision 20/20, is the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM). Due to their important role in regulating fire codes and fire prevention efforts in all States, NASFM could be the ideal national organization to coordinate our efforts, apply for such fire grant, and disseminate the resources based on the needs at the local levels within each state.

NASFM is the essential part of the equation to address the national fire problem since they are the connecting link between the United States Fire Administration (USFA) at the national level on one end, and the 30,185 local fire departments in our country on the other end. Their essential role in implementing the incident action plan in the unified command system is indisputable.

Of utmost importance in coordinating and implementing the national strategies at the local levels is the active participation of the International Fire Marshals Association (IFMA). IFMA should play a key role in coordinating these national efforts at the local jurisdictions where the rubber actually meets the road.

One of our New Year's resolutions for 2009 must be establishing that Unified Command system that could coordinate all our efforts in addressing the fire problem in our country. We have come a long way, but we still have a way to go. The giant is finally waking up.

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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 amirkhah@lasvegasnevada.gov.

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