Learning from Others

We in the fire service could and should learn from the experiences of other organizations in the life safety field that are taking proactive measures to reduce their total national fatalities. I believe that one such organization could be the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) that is a major agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

On April 5, at the New York International Auto Show, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters announced that all new vehicles will be required to have anti-rollover technology called "Electronic Stability Control (ESC)" by the 2012 model year. She stated, "it is estimated that the ESC could save between 5,300 and 9,600 lives annually and prevent up to 238,000 injuries a year once it is fully deployed into the nation's fleet." According to Nicole Nason, Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), "there seems to be general recognition from auto manufacturers and the suppliers and safety advocates that this is technology that will save thousands of lives."

More then 43,000 people are killed annually on the nation's roadways. Annually, more than 10,000 people die in rollovers, even though only 3 percent of crashes involve rollovers. NHSTA said that installation of the ESC would cost $111 per vehicle on those that already include antilock brakes, or a total of $479 per vehicle for the entire system.

While different, there are many similarities between this story and the residential fire sprinkler system technology that we have been fighting for. Considering that the average price of new car in 2006 was $27,800, the additional $479 for the ESC is just about 1.7 percent of the total cost. In 2006, the average price of a new house was $293,200, and according to the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC) the cost for installation of residential fire sprinklers is about 1.5 percent of the total building cost.

Here is the difference, however; the Department of Transportation deems the additional 1.7% cost of this engineering solution to be justifiable, even though rollovers count for only 3 percent of the annual crashes, and the associated 10,000 deaths account for only 23% of the total fatalities. In our fire world, Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC) claims that "installing both smoke alarms and a fire sprinkler system reduces the risk of death in a fire home by 82% relative to having neither." Unfortunately, despite the fact an engineering solution such as the residential fire sprinkler system can have a tremendous future impact in reducing our national fire fatalities, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) opposes this technology mainly based on the additional 1.5% associated cost.

Do you see the difference? The national leadership in the field of transportation mandates that to reduce 23% of their total fatalities, manufacturers must comply by 2012 and install a new technology that adds an additional cost of 1.7% to the average cost of a car. And interestingly enough, the auto manufacturers and the suppliers and safety advocates all recognize that this technology will save thousands of lives. So, at the end of the day, they will put the ESC in all cars by 2012 and, as we all know, pass that additional cost to the consumers. But, here in our fire world, we are still caught in a battle with the NAHB and their supporters in the International Code Council's (ICC), to get the residential fire sprinkler requirement in the 2009 edition of the International Residential Code (IRC).

Just a few weeks ago, on May 22, in the ICC Final Action Hearing in Rochester, NY, despite receiving a strong majority by the virtue of 56% of the votes, fire and life safety advocates for the installation of residential fire sprinkler system in all new homes, were unable to reach the two-thirds majority needed to overturn the ICC code committee's opposition to residential fire sprinkler systems.

It is interesting to know that in the ICC process only the governmental representatives can cast a vote, so the NAHB representatives could not vote at all. In Rochester, the fire service representatives were solidly behind the residential sprinkler proposal, and were also accompanied by many of the more progressive building officials especially from the states of New York and New Jersey. But then the opposing 44% of the votes came from the remaining building officials, who despite being tasked with the safety of our communities, sided with the NAHB on this issue and defeated the residential fire sprinkler proposal.

And let there be no illusions, that even if we had succeeded in getting the residential fire sprinkler requirement for all new homes passed in the 2009 edition of the IRC; or even if we succeed later on in the 2012 cycle of the ICC codes, the NAHB will still strongly challenge every single local jurisdictions around the country, come time for the adoption of their local building codes. Based on their history, have no doubt that NAHB will try to strike the residential fire sprinkler requirement out of the local adoption of the IRC.

Just like the car manufacturers, the home builders also pass that additional cost to their consumers. You don't hear the auto manufacturers complaining that this additional 1.7% would prevent people from buying new cars, and force them to buy older and unsafe cars, do you? But, as you probably can guess, NAHB claims that the additional cost of sprinklers would prevent people from buying new homes. NAHB pushes this even a notch further and has claimed that by making new homes too expensive, we in the fire service are to blame for the fire fatalities by forcing the people to live in older and unsafe homes.

The fact of the matter is that it is the market value and the supply and demand that determines the price of the house. Just a few short years ago when the housing market was booming and profits were sky rocketing, NAHB opposed fire sprinklers. And now NAHB complains about the slow down in the new housing market and that the cost increase for the residential fire sprinklers would dampen the already soft market even further more.

But, do you know what? Take a look at the bottom lines, proposed work force reductions, and the financial troubles in the recent months for GM, Ford, and Chrysler. According to the April 3, 2007 report on MSNBC, February's sale of the new cars for GM fell four percent , Ford fell nine percent and Chrysler's sales fell 4.1%. And yet, the big three American auto manufacturers will comply with the DOT's 2012 mandate to install the anti-rollover system even though it will mean higher car prices.

Most importantly, my focus is more on the organizational leadership on this very issue. We need national leadership to take bold and proactive measures as depicted by the transportation secretary, to be able to mandate fire safety measures to reduce our fire fatalities. The American public deserves better than this.

If you think that fire is merely a local issue and not federal; and that we don't have the means available to mandate any national regulations to reduce fatalities then ask yourself, why? What is the difference? Who responds to those rollovers anyway? We at the local levels respond to all traffic accidents and pull out the rollover victims, don't we? So then is the traffic fatalities considered a local concern or a federal issue after all? DOT Secretary Peters certainly thinks it is a national problem, and she has devised an engineered solution to be applied all across the board nationally, and by all car manufacturers, to address this issue.

In the fire world though, we respond to fires locally, and our fatalities are considered local, and because of that, for the past many decades it has been engraved in our minds that fire is indeed a mere local issue. But then, why? Why can't we look at the fire problem from a national perspective just as DOT does, and devise an engineered solution to address our national fire problem?

There are many other examples from various other federal organizations such as the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, or the Environmental Protection Agency that show successful implementation of national policies at the local levels. The reason that I chose the Federal Highway Administration example for this article was because they share a common history with us in the fire service.

Most fire and life safety advocates around the country know about the three E's of fire prevention; Education, Enforcement, and Engineering. They might also know that the three E's concept was first introduced to the fire service in President Truman's 1947 Conference on Fire Prevention. But what most of us in the fire service might not know is that the roots of the "three E's" concept was in the 1946 President Truman Highway Safety Conference that was assembled to address the national highway fatalities. So, you see, in a way we share common history with DOT.

But despite having common historical roots and similarities with respect to our challenges in reducing the number of national fatalities in our two respected fields, it is quite apparent that the general perspectives and approaches to address the problem are quite different between DOT and the fire service.

DOT views the highway fatalities as a national problem and therefore takes appropriate national measures to address it. In this particular example, DOT issued an enforcement timetable, after which they mandate full compliance from the car manufacturers, requiring them to utilize engineering solutions to address the rollover fatalities. DOT organizational lines of authority and responsibility are rather clear, and it is centralized which behooves their national policy making and enforcement.

In the fire service world though, not only we are decentralized, but at times we may not even be on the same sheet of music on some issues. That lack of unity is even more evident when it comes to using the three E's of fire prevention to address the fire problem in our country. Obviously, with regards to the particular example in this article, our leadership organizations in the fire service such as U.S. Fire Administration, the International Associaton of Fire Chiefs, the International Associaton of Fire Fighters and the National Fire Protection Association, despite all being deeply committed to the fire and life safety, they are still divided in their efforts and not solidly unified in their stance in support of the residential fire sprinkler system. And then, we have our building officials in the ICC, who despite being responsible for providing for the safety of the occupants and the responding firefighters through built-in passive and active life safety systems, have aligned themselves with the NAHB on the residential fire sprinkler issue. I might be mistaken, but it certainly appears that "the tail seems to be wagging the dog."

But am I wrong? Here is just a simple example to underline this problem. Take a look at the recent catastrophic multiple-fatality fires (three or more deaths per fire), that we have been experiencing during the past few months. Just today, as I am writing this column, five children under the age of 10 were killed in a massive four-alarm fire in a row house fire in Pittsburgh. That brings the year's total to 227 total deaths in 56 fires, where 134 (59%) of fatalities have been children, and the remaining 93 (41%) of them have been adults.

Don't get me wrong, all fire service organizations deeply care and are saddened by all these fire fatalities. And they all might take individual stances in expressing their desires to do more to address such problems. But then there is not a well coordinated and unified support nationally, to make sure that these catastrophes do not happen again, in the future. Thus, it is not hard to predict that until then, unfortunately these multiple fire fatalities would continue. I believe that our fire service leadership is divided and still does not focus on fire prevention as a high priority, as they should. But doesn't all these recent multiple fatalities fire catastrophes point out that it is time to change?

I believe that much positive fire and life safety outcomes could result from these recent unfortunate fire tragedies, if the fire service leadership organizations such as USFA, NFPA, ICC, IAFC, IAFF, and others used these as the ultimate teachable moments and stood unified together and put their full organizational support behind the residential fire sprinkler systems. Residential fire sprinkler system is a good example of where the technology could have a major impact in reducing the future fire fatalities.

Ask yourself, if all those homes where the fire fatalities occurred had all been sprinklered when they were built many years ago, then would we have these multiple fire fatalities now? I am afraid that we will be asking that same very question 20 years from now, when we have fatalities in the houses that we build today that don't have sprinklers? What could we do different right now, to avoid such future catastrophes?

I believe that the major difference between us and the leadership of the DOT is in the organizational vision and most importantly in the leadership. DOT's goal is to reduce future fatalities, and views their anti-rollover engineering solution to apply to all future models and not a retrofit solution to the millions existing cars on the street. DOT has proactive leadership, and they have a clear vision of enhancing safety through engineering and reducing the total number of fatalities.

We in the fire service recognize that there is an inventory of more than one hundred million existing dwellings in our country, thus installing residential fire sprinkler systems in about 1.5 million new homes that are constructed annually might not be considered an immediate solution to all our country's fire problem. But then, logically, this is the most effective, systematic, long-range solution that could reduce our total fire fatalities. I believe, similar to DOT, to succeed we must also have a determined national leadership with the clear vision of enhancing community safety and commitment to reducing the total fire fatalities.

In the transportation world, Secretary Peters is proactive and is focused more on preventing future deaths and states "like air bags and like seat belts, 10 years down the road we're going to look back and wonder how the ESC technology was ever live without." My wish is that in the fire world, at the end of our professional career, we could say the same about the residential fire sprinkler system technology. For that to happen though, we need to focus extensively on not only educating the public about the life safety values of fire sprinklers in reducing total national fire fatalities and fire cost, but also to remind our own fire service peers that fire sprinkler save firefighters lives too.

Azarang (Ozzie) Mirkhah, Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is the Fire Protection Engineer (FPE) for the City of Las Vegas Department of Fire & Rescue. His responsibilities include reviewing all building fire and life safety system designs and submittals to insure compliance with the federal, state and local fire and life safety codes and standards. Mr. Mirkhah is also involved in the development of fire & life safety codes and standards for the city.

Mr. Mirkhah is a registered professional engineer with more than 25 years of work experience in the field of fire protection engineering. Mr. Mirkhah joined the Las Vegas Fire & Rescue (LVF&R) more than 12 years ago. Prior to that Mr. Mirkhah worked as a consultant designing fire protection systems for some of the most internationally recognized fire protection consulting firms.

Mr. Mirkhah holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering (BSME), and a Masters degree in Public Administration (MPA). Mr. Mirkhah is a 1999 graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Mr. Mirkhah is a Certified Building Official, Certified Fire Inspector, Certified Mechanical Inspector, and Certified Plans Examiner through the International Code Council (ICC).

Mr. Mirkhah is a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and serves on the national NFPA 13 Technical Committee for Sprinkler System Discharge Design Criteria. Mr. Mirkhah is a member of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) a member of the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) - USA Branch. Mr. Mirkhah is also a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). You can contact Mr. Mirkhah at: amirkhah@lasvegasnevada.gov. To view all of Ozzie's articles on Firehouse.com, please click here.