What Do We Have to Lose?

The perfect applicability of President Truman's statement to our current conditions clearly reveals the fact that we are still struggling with the same problems and trying to overcome the same obstacles, and that we are not much further along as we...

President Truman's idea was brilliant in getting all of the stakeholders to focus on stopping the economic drain caused by fire, and more importantly, to get society's buy-in. If it could be done 60 years ago, it could be done now. We need to organize a national conference similar in both scale and scope to the 1947 conference, to address all aspects of our national fire problem. What do we have to lose, after all?

No, we haven't been sitting idle for the past six decades, and under the leadership of the United States Fire Administration (USFA) there has been great and steady success in reducing fire fatalities. We have had the 1973 America Burning, the 1987 America Burning Revisited, and finally the 2000 America Burning Recommissioned reports. But, can we truly say that has been enough? No, not according to the 2000 America Burning Recommissioned report that states "America today has the highest fire losses in terms of both frequency and total losses of any modern technological society."

Realistically, despite their successes, none of those reports could compare to the 1947 conference with respect to the scope, significance and the full spectrum of participants. Don't get me wrong: I am a strong supporter of the USFA and its systematic, steady progress in enhancing and promoting the fire and life safety concepts in our country for the past 34 years. But after six decades, we certainly are not where we desire to be-not unless, as a society, we have reached the conclusion that losing 4,000 lives and spending one-quarter trillion dollars a year by fire is acceptable.

A National Issue with Local Consequences

The logical question is: If the 1947 conference was such a success, why are we still facing similar problems today? Some believe the reason might be deeply rooted in our constitutional separation of federal and state/local authorities and responsibilities. Back in 1947, they recognized that the fire problem is a national problem and they outlined the appropriate recommendations for the state and local governments to implement.

But, the federal government's recommendations were advisory in nature, and they could not require or force the state or local governments to implement any of them. That is why the 1947 conference did not identify either the funding source or the structured organizational mechanism to implement those comprehensive recommendations at the local levels. Without an organizational structure and mechanism, there was no accountability to insure implementation of those recommendations.

So why should we expect a different outcome the next time around? Or, rather, how could we have a better chance to succeed if had another full-scale national conference such as that which convened in 1947?

In fact, the federal government, through federal regulations, grants, and funding programs, indirectly imposes its will on state and local governments and private entities. Anyone familiar with Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations and Environmental Protection Agency rulings knows this to be true. While many regulations become unfunded mandates, Congress has attached billions of dollars to many important programs whose impact is felt most strongly at local levels yet improves us nationally, as well.

They say money talks. And people tend to listen. With the federal government holding the purse, state and local governments tend to be all ears. When we talk about finding proactive ways to reduce our multi-billion-dollar annual fire cost, we need to be fiscally creative-and don't forget, there are long-established federal funding mechanisms and grants currently funneled into the local governments that could be leveraged and expanded to suit this purpose. The EPA doesn't seem to have a problem in enforcing federal standards and regulations through their (so-called) "voluntary pollution management goals." If it works well for the EPA, why shouldn't it work for us? Since 1947, there have been many successful federal programs that could provide us better chance of success than the 1947 conference. We must try to find our best fit. We need to analyze the problem and "think outside the box," as they say. What do we have to lose, after all?

What a New President's Conference Would Do