Mission Accomplished, Not Yet

On Sept. 21, 2008, 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 building construction codes at the International Code Council's (ICC) Final Action Hearing, in Minneapolis.

There were many fire service proposals that were successful in getting adopted. Two of the most important proposals that were approved to be included in 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.

It was a joyous moment indeed for all of us in the fire service and the fire protection field, when after a very long debate, the membership voted 1,282 to 470 in favor of requiring the installation of residential fire sprinkler in all new homes. To succeed. we needed to garner the required two-thirds majority to override the ICC Committee Action. We secured 73 percent of the votes. A solid victory by all accounts; and a historical accomplishment for all.

As public servants, it is our professional obligation as building officials and fire service members alike, to work hand-in-hand to provide the highest level of fire and life safety and community protection for our public. The ICC Final Action Hearing was a great depiction of such cooperation. Not only were all of the fire service organizations in our country unified in their stance, but there were also hundreds of progressive building officials that supported our cause. Without that, success would undoubtedly not have been possible.

It is of utmost importance to recognize the contributions of our building official peers in this victory for our public. We must not lose sight that we serve the same master, the public. Thanks to the cooperation and collaboration between the fire and building officials, our public scored a solid victory in Minneapolis.

Our respected opponents have tried to portray the fire service participation and success as a single issue-driven movement. But that simply was not the case. Many of the fire service representatives from the various fire service organizations, working together for months in the Joint Fire Service Review Committee (JFSRC), were present in force and participated for the entire nine days of this process.

Our batting ratio was great and the JFSRC attained a 67 percent success ratio. This means that the votes went in our desired direction 67 percent of the time for all construction codes such as building, mechanical and residential. Our work not only makes buildings safer for our public, but it has a direct impact on the firefighters' safety.

This was my brief post incident critique. Now, enough talking about the past. Let's talk about establishing our game plan for the future. Remember, we may have won the battle, but the war is not over yet. Many serious challenges coupled with political and legal obstacles are still ahead of us before the residential fire sprinkler requirements are adopted in the local codes all across the country.

Let me use an analogy to better explain the challenges yet ahead.

My friends, this was our Normandy, our D-Day. We secured the beachhead, but the war is not over yet by any stretch of imagination. It has just begun in the various theaters of action in all of the states and local jurisdictions.

It would be a grave mistake to gloat and declare success with a "Mission Accomplished" banner behind our back. After all, as we have all learned from the lessons in Iraq, success in the national theater does not bring an end to the hostilities. And, the cost and casualties of the urban guerilla warfare are staggering and present a herculean challenge to us.

I used the Iraq example because it is one thing to have a strategy to win the initial war. It is yet another and even more important, to have a clear understanding and a strategic view about how to successfully rebuild and reconstruct in the aftermath.

Using that analogy -- here we are. The battle is won. Now, we must have a strategy to protect our gains and win the war as quickly as possible and without extensive losses.

Our respected opponents have not been idle as it is quite evident by their many newsletters and activities. While we were planning to win in Minneapolis, they had their contingency plans developed to be activated in the case of their defeat. And they have started those efforts as we speak. That is only logical and prudent on their part.

For us though, it is very important to recognize that we don't have time to bask. We must start preparing our strategies, and adjust our tactics. We have to be ready for the future battles looming behind the horizon. To succeed, we in the fire service need to be better organized. We must focus on developing the leadership and organizational capabilities necessary to succeed in the local battles of the future for the many years to come.

Our opponents are well funded and quite organized. Obviously, we have limited funding resources. To compensate for that and to keep up with our opponents as a very minimum, we must make up the difference with our organizational capabilities and efficiencies. We must maximize the rate of return on our efforts and our limited resources. The best way to do that is coordination, consistent and succinct public information messages, distribution of all the tasks and responsibilities, avoiding duplication of efforts, etc.

To do that using an incident command system (ICS) analogy, we 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.

And this is as complex as it gets. This challenge is much bigger than any of our 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.

So why not look at this just like another major incident? To address the national fire problem, it is our professional obligation to step up to the plate, take command, and use all our tactical and leadership skills and experiences to best protect our communities. With 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 utilize the useful ICS concepts, right?

The "Unified Command" can be a board of representatives from the various national fire organizations. No, not merely our fire or building code experts, because most of them don't have the strategic perspectives or the organizational muscle to pull this through. But, just like the "Unified Command" concept in the ICS, those board members must not only be highly trained and well-informed about the issues, but also be the decision makers for their representative organizations.

As a suggestion, I think it would be best if we could get representatives from the United States Fire Administration (USFA), International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM), Volunteer and Combination Officers Section (VCOS), International Fire Marshals Association (IFMA), National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and the International Code Council (ICC).

I might absolutely be wrong. But I personally believe that the "Unified Command" at the helm should be put together from the fire service public sector side rather than private sector. That way, our respected opponents could not use the accusations of financial gains or profit as our motives as they have repeatedly done in their newsletters in the past.

I believe that perceptions are very important in our future battles at the local levels.

Of course, to be successful, we must be inclusive of not only all our traditional allies, but also find new non-traditional allies to win at the grass-roots levels. Private sector organizations such as the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA), the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA), and coalitions like the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC) have played a major role in all our success in the past. Let me be very clear that there is absolutely no way that we can succeed without their full support and participation in the future.

In my mind, the "Unified Command" at the helm should be the fire service public sector. Then, just like the ICS approach, the planning, logistics, administration, and operations sections, and all other divisions, branches would need to be filled with all of our various ally organizations.

Fire service leadership organizations must step up to the plate and implement the ICS approach and establish the "Unified Command." We have the leadership strength. It is now time to establish command. Here are just some ideas and suggestions that we should consider in our IAP.

Educating the public officials - We must focus on educating the city/county administrators, mayors and all other state and local elected officials. All fire service organizations must focus on this very important task. We must participate at the local level to inform our elected officials and at the national level by educating the members of organizations such as:

  • Council of State Governments
  • United States Conference of Mayors
  • National League of Cities
  • International City/County Management Association

Based on their organizational mission, I believe that the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE), under the leadership of Chief Randy Bruegeman, could be instrumental in leading such efforts. Leadership of the IAFC and IAFF and their strong support on this issue is of utmost importance. The Congressional Fire Service Institute (CFSI) could play an instrumental role in educating our representatives on the Capitol Hill.

Common Voices - During the hearings, emotional testimonies were presented by along with the few other excellent testimonies from Firefighter Jo Brinkley from Green Bay, WI.; and Kaaren Mann, who lost her daughter, Lauren, in the Ocean Isle, NC, fire last year, spoke. You could hear a pin drop, and many of the couple of thousand present (including yours truly), were in tears.

There is not a more powerful voice than a grieved mother. No, it wasn't a mere emotional presentation. It was also logical because she was great in putting priorities in perspective. She stated: "the cost to put sprinklers into the home where my daughter died would have been less that what I had to pay for the flowers at her funeral."

The Common Voices Coalition that was started by the NFSA last year will definitely have a very significant impact in our future battles at the state and local levels. Just look at what the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) have done, and how successful they have been in advocating their cause. Why can't we do that?

Environmental impacts - Green buildings and sustainability are now huge. We need the support of the green movement in our country. We need to do a study to show the positive environmental impact of suppressing fires at the earliest stages of progression by the residential fire sprinklers.

It would be good if we could get the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) to apply for a fire grant and work with National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in conducting a series of tests, and measure the products of combustion released and pollutants emitted to the atmosphere.

We need to get all the non-traditional allies that we can, to support our cause. Since California has historically been the bastion of the environmental movement in our country, maybe our peers in there, particularly the California Fire Chiefs Association and the California Fire Prevention Officers, could lead our national efforts in this arena.

Fire service involvement in the code development - We need to find resources to have continued participation of the fire service in both the ICC and NFPA code development processes. We need to find a grant mechanism to allow for such participation. That would provide for even more participation than the past, because historically many of our peers were not able to participate due to the lack of funding.

Strategy 5 of the Vision 20/20 National Strategies for Loss Prevention is focused on this very issue. Our brother Sean DeCrane, representing the IAFF, in the various code development processes, is tasked with leading this effort. I believe that based on Sean's excellent performance the last few times, he will be able to do a great job in leading this effort, if we all give him our support.

I believe that the support from our peers in the more established fire prevention associations such as the Michigan Fire Inspectors Society (MFSI) and the Washington State Association of Fire Marshals (WSAFM) with a long history of code development and their strong membership could be of tremendous value in promoting our cause.

Supporting the ICC -The fire service must put their support behind the ICC. Although the National Association of Home Builders is considered as a "strategic partner" of ICC, they are not too pleased as you can imagine. Undoubtedly, the ICC will feel the wrath of the NAHB.

It is important for us to put our support behind our building official peers that went on a limb for us.

At the local level, NAHB will undoubtedly put pressure on the local building officials not to adopt the 2009 edition of the ICC codes. That could put financial strains on the ICC for a period of time. Many state requirements and also as a result of the Insurance Services Office (ISO) building accreditation requirements. Most jurisdictions have a limited window of time before adopting the most recent edition of the codes. But, even a couple of years could really hurt the ICC.

Let's work on being part of the solution. It is even more important now since the ICC's new president, Adolf Zubia, is a fire chief and one of our own. He will have a very challenging term this year, and we need to support him in any/all national and local events.

He is the first fire chief in that position. We must prove that the fire service participation on the ICC Board and at the helm of their organization is constructive and not divisive.

Federal grants - I believe that we need to work with officials on the federal level to require local officials to meet certain code requirements before they are considered for grants. That may include the adoption of the national IRC 2009 edition or the NFPA 1 Uniform Fire Code, with the residential fire sprinkler requirement for all new homes.

All I am saying is that the federal grants can be the impetus for the change at the local levels. Webster defines impetus as "stimulation or encouragement resulting in increased activity." And I believe that through their current grant program, the federal government has an opportunity to stimulate and encourage the local governments to better protect their communities. Jurisdictions then have the choice.

My friends, these are just mere suggestions and food for thought. I strongly encourage any and all of my peers who might have many better ideas to throw them out for discussion. But do it soon. We need to get organized, and we should do that now. There is not much time to waste.

All our gains could be wiped out by our opponents 18 months from now in the ICC's next code development cycle.

That is exactly why we need to continue focusing on establishing this organizational mechanism now. Time is of essence and considering that our opponents are well-resourced and highly organized, we need to roll-up the sleeves now and start getting organized now.

We have made great national strides in better protecting our communities. But we should not be complacent. Our success in Minneapolis was only the first step. Now we must continue the battle. Mission accomplished -- not yet. Thus, we must keep up the good fight.

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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