New Coalition Eyes Nation's Fire Prevention Efforts

A small group of highly respected fire marshals have formed a coalition to study the nation's fire prevention effort to determine what programs are working and where it is failing to accomplish its mission of saving lives and property. They are looking for the gaps that have to be closed and areas in which conventional wisdom has to be revised or replaced by fresh ideas and new priorities. At the same time, they are prepared to strengthen the fire service's advocacy for programs and devices that have proven to be successful over a period of many years. The ultimate goal is to develop a national strategy for fire prevention.

Known as Vision 20/20, an ad hoc committee of fire prevention experts from many fire-rescue organizations came together under the leadership of Fire Marshal Jim Crawford of Vancouver, WA. They met quietly at the National Fire Academy and, working through the Institution of Fire Engineers (U.S. Branch), were able to qualify for a FIRE Act grant. This has enabled them to start a strategic planning process that eventually could lead to a national strategy for fire prevention. Their first large forum will take place the first week of April, when the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI) holds its annual meeting in Washington, DC.

"We need to know if what we're doing is right or wrong," says Ed Comeau, director of the Center for Campus Fire Safety and former investigator for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). While the overall number of fires and fire deaths have declined in recent decades, Comeau points out that by mid-December of 2007, there had been an upsurge of multi-death fires (three or more fatalities) with 102 fires that killed 396 people — of whom 217 (55%) were children. (More than 3,000 people died in other fires.)

What's behind these statistics? We've always known that children and the elderly have been the main victims of fatal fires because they lack the mobility to escape. But why have there been more multi-death fires and what are the hidden factors we don't know? To Comeau and other committee members, the vital questions are: "Why are these fires happening, why are all these people dying, what can we do about it and what do we have to do differently?"

One approach gaining support is to draw the distinction between "fire prevention" and "fire safety" by placing more emphasis on preventing fires. Most of us use the terms interchangeably, but Richard Taylor of the Maine State Fire Marshal's Office explains: "There's a lack of clarity when these terms are used…sprinklers and smoke detectors are post-ignition events and important fire safety devices. They deserve the support we give them." But Taylor and others we talked to believe that more effort is needed on what to do before there's a fire in order to prevent it from happening. For example, all of the experts give top priority to providing more resources for public education. Strict enforcement of tough codes is another critical tool to make fire prevention more effective.

A big part of the problem is the refusal of schools to cooperate with fire departments in public education programs. Educators have their own priorities and fire prevention classes aren't one of them. Shawn Longerich of the Peoples Burn Foundation of Indiana relates: "We can't work with our schools. The teachers are too busy and won't give us the time of day. We can't educate the parents and we can't educate the kids." She reports that they have had more success working with community centers. And, as difficult as it may be, Longerich is a strong believer in trying to change human behavior when it comes to fire prevention. "Until we change behavior, we can't change anything," she insists.

Longerich and the fire marshals also see a direct link between poverty and fire deaths, which is not exactly a new revelation; the busiest fire companies always have been in the poorest neighborhoods. It's a basic fact of life that often is overlooked. As long as people live in squalor — whether it's in a big-city apartment, a small-town boarding house or a rural shack — there are going to be fatal fires. Rich people also die in fires, but not in the same numbers. Fire departments cannot change the social order, but stronger, better-financed fire prevention and safety programs can reduce the death toll.

Vision 20/20 is taking up a challenge that will be very controversial and an uphill battle all the way. It goes against the grain of the American fire service, which is to emphasize suppression over fire prevention. But it's worth the fight. Division Chief Michael Love of the Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue Service points out: "Fire prevention efforts have not progressed to be near parity with other fire services…Solutions that could make the difference are known; the United States could become one of the most fire-safe nations in the industrialized world."

Most of their ideas are not revolutionary, but if successfully implemented, Vision 20/20 could revolutionize the role that fire prevention plays in the American fire service.

HAL BRUNO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.