Common Voices

Fifteen hundred mourners gathered on November 7, at the Koger Center, on the campus of University of South Carolina, to remember the seven students who perished in the early morning fire in Ocean Isle Beach, NC, that completely destroyed a beach house on Oct. 28. The victims, most of whom attended the University Of South Carolina were identified as: Cassidy Fae Pendley, 18; Lauren Astrid Kristiana Mahon, 18; Justin Michael Anderson, 19; Travis Lane Cale, 19; Allison Walden, 18; William Rhea, 18; and Emily Lauren Yelton, 18. There were also six other students who barely escaped the fire by jumping out of the windows.

The day after the fire, Chip Auman, the owner of the beach house said that his family's "lives were just changed forever" by the tragedy. Auman said his 18-year-old daughter survived the fire, but was hospitalized and in stable condition because of complications from smoke inhalation. "The thought of losing a child is unimaginable to me, and as a father my heart goes out to the families that lost a loved one in this situation," he said. Auman said the situation was "hard to fathom." "There's just no words to describe what we've been going through," he said, asking for prayers for survivors and the families of those who died. "We're numb, we're confused, we're heartbroken."

What is also so telling about this fire is that it tragically demonstrates the importance of fire safety, all the time, no matter where you are. These 13 students had gathered together for a weekend vacation from school. The house was owned by the parents of one of the students, so it was not an unfamiliar place. Just because they were not on campus, in their fraternity, sorority or residence hall, doesn't mean that they can flip the fire safety switch in their head to "off." In a study done by the People's Burn Foundation and Campus Firewatch, most of the students did not know what to do if a fire broke out in their room and one of the common responses was "stop, drop and roll." (This study can be downloaded from Campus Firewatch). This shows us that we did a great job with the fire safety message when they were kids, but we did not keep it up as they matured and assumed more responsibility for their own fire safety.

After the fire, Terry Walden, father of one of the victims said "Allison's sorority roommate was one of the survivors. She managed to jump to safety from the third floor of the burning condominium." Walden said, "I just hope and pray that she didn't suffer." He added, "You know, it's going to be hard in the next couple of weeks when we really come to grips with the fact that she's not coming back. That is going to be the hardest part." Walden said "You can't be going through life assigning guilt or blaming people. You have to accept these things and move on. We will try to do that somehow."

As a father, I can fully understand Mr. Walden's pain and his deep faith. Losing his 18-year-old daughter in this tragedy, and all that he could hope and pray for was that "she didn't suffer". Despite the heavy heart, he is accepting this tragic loss with a fatalistic perspective, and with a level of forgiveness that is reflective of his deep beliefs and humanity. My heartfelt sorrow and deepest condolences goes to him and all the other family members of this tragedy.

His statement "you can't be going through life assigning guilt or blaming people. You have to accept these things and move on" deeply aches my heart and brings tears to my eyes. Mr. Walden is indeed a bigger man than I, and a much kinder human being. Because, I can't forgive; and I do assign guilt.

As a Father I might be able to forgive. But then no; based on what I know as a fire service member, I can't forgive. Based on what I know as a fire protection professional, I do assign guilt. And that guilt goes to all involved in the construction of these homes without the residential fire sprinklers, we in the fire service included.

According to the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, "installing both smoke alarms and a fire sprinkler system reduces the risk of death in a fire home by 82% relative to having neither".

Eureka! We do indeed know what and where we should be focusing on, and how to reduce 80% of our fire fatalities and decrease our fire loss! As the saying goes, this should be just as easy as "shooting fish in a barrel" then, right? We see the target, we have the know how, and simple affordable life saving technologies, such as the smoke alarms and the residential fire sprinkler systems have been available for decades. But, while smoke alarms are now quite common in our households, and 96% of our homes have smoke detectors installed in them; residential fire sprinkler systems have been installed in only 2% of homes in our country.

Then the question is why? What are we waiting for? What is holding us back? Why don't we have residential fire sprinkler systems in all newly constructed homes? Really, why don't we put all our support behind installing such life saving technology in all our new houses nationwide?

As a fire service member, I am ashamed of the fact that as of the end of October, we have had a total of 356 fatalities in 90 multiple-fatality fires this year, where 195 (55%) of them have been children, and the remaining 161 (45%) have been adults. A horrible fire death is not acceptable and must not be anyone's destiny. Not in this day and age, where feasible technology is available to prevent such catastrophic fire losses.

Yes, in all of those instances, we did get there to fight the fire. And we got there very fast, from the time that we were dispatched. But then, not fast enough to save the lives of those 195 kids. I believe that residential fire sprinklers could have made the difference between life and death for those kids.

I am ashamed, because public education must be of our highest priority in the fire service, yet it isn't. All around the country, the absolute majority of our public, is not even aware of the availability of life saving technologies such as the residential fire sprinkler systems. Then since they are not informed, our grieved public accepts these fire losses as faith, and unavoidable. Yet, if they were well informed and educated, they would undoubtedly be outraged, that despite the availability of feasible technology, not enough is being done to strengthen the construction codes to create a much safer environment in their homes to protect their children.

Look at the current national concern with the lead paint in the toys manufactured in China for the past few years. There are millions of these toys purchased in this country every single year, and not even a handful of children have died of lead poisoning nationally. Yet, rightfully so, concerned parents have been outraged and have demanded a recall and have boycotted these toys. Just look at the international impact of such concerns. China was so concerned about their international image and trade that based on the CNN report, former Chinese State Food and Drug Administration Minister Zheng Xiaoyu was executed, on July 11, 2007!

Yes, concerned parents with a common cause and a common voice can, and do make the difference. After all, it is about the safety of their children. What would those parents do if they knew the odds of their children perishing in a fire at home were much higher than dying from these toys? Wouldn't they be outraged and demand an answer and an immediate change?

Our society is much kinder than China in treatment of responsible officials, and we don't enforce Hamurabi's Code. But still, accountability is the key. And we must answer for all these 3,000 residential fire deaths year in and year out. What is our game plan for reducing that number and making sure such tragedies would not be repeated in future?

We in the fire service have not educated our public the way we should. And that my friends, is our greatest weakness. That is why currently only 2% of homes have residential fire sprinkler systems. And that lack of information is precisely what our opponents are banking on, and through their inaccurate statistics and misinformation campaigns hope to keep the residential fire sprinkler requirements out of the building code.

We in the fire service must change that. We must have a much higher priority for public education and fire prevention. We must also focus extensively on coalition building and grassroots efforts to mobilize our public to bring about the change and strive for a safer community.

We can learn from the success of other national organizations and try to do same in the fire service. One such example is Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), that was established back in the 1980s. MADD has been tremendously successful in helping change public attitudes and laws regarding driving under the influence (DUI). With MADD's significant influence, all 50 states have now passed laws making it a criminal offense to drive with a designated level of alcohol, regardless of whether the driver is impaired or not. MADD then successfully lobbied to lower that original level of .10% down to .08%, and are actively working to lower it even further.

It is important to recognize that fire service is not and must not be alone in this effort. We must join forces and have public/private coalitions, both at the national and local levels to promote fire and life safety.

Call it karma, but only three days before the fatal Ocean Isle Beach fire, on October 25, 2007, the National Fire Sprinkler Association Board of Directors announced that it has launched an advocates' organization called the Common Voices Coalition.

The news release on the NFSA's website states:

"NFSA began building the Coalition in February 2007 by bringing together fire advocates who have been affected by fire, but have turned tragic events into advocacy by supporting fire sprinklers. The Coalition is well on its way to making a difference, with a plan that includes education, advocacy, and promotion of fire sprinklers. The six individuals who are serving on the Advisory Board of the Coalition include:

  • Bonnie Woodruff, mother of Ben Woodruff
  • Gail Minger, mother of Michael Minger
  • Vina Drennan, widow of John Drennan, FDNY Fire Captain
  • Amy Acton, Burn Survivor and Director of The Phoenix Society
  • Justina Page, mother of Amos Page
  • Donna Henson, mother of Dominic Passantino

The four mothers all have lost children to fire. The efforts of the advisory board include a plan to provide testimony and a speakers' bureau for others that are pursuing fire sprinkler legislation across the country. They have identified as priorities work on the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act, a bill in both the House and Senate in Washington, D.C. and participation with the IRC Residential Fire Sprinkler Coalition, a group focused on the inclusion of fire sprinklers in residential code requirements.

The Common Voices Coalition will also target specific national television programs in an effort for their grass-roots message to be heard. America has a fire problem, and fire sprinklers are part of the solution. The advocates put a face on the statistics and bring the problem to life.

"I applaud the strength, courage and vision demonstrated by the Common Voices Coalition Advisory Board," said NFSA President John Viniello. "I expect when fire sprinklers become recognized as an inseparable part of the American fiber, we will inevitably look back on the works of this Coalition as being important milestones toward the elimination of fire as a threat to life."

"It is extremely gratifying for me as Chairman of the NFSA Board of Directors to provide support to such a worthy organization," said Wayne Gey. "With fire killing over 3,000 people a year - most of those in dwellings - the need for the proven, time-tested technology of automatic fire sprinklers where we live, work and play is obvious. By creating the means for the Common Voices Coalition to make their tragic experiences with fire heard, public awareness and sensitivity to fire protection issues will be heightened, resulting in a progressive decrease in fire-related fatalities."

This is indeed a great effort that must be supported nationally. These grieving mothers can and must be the national voice of compassion and public education for us. They are striving for a safer community, with the hope that other families don't have to live through such tragedies. I believe that it is their educational efforts that just like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) will eventually bring about that change.

Two other parents that are speaking out are Doug and Linda Turnbull, who lost their daughter, Julie, in an off-campus fire at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. At the national launch of Campus Fire Safety Month at Kent State University, Doug Turnbull spoke of the heartache of losing his daughter, just weeks before she was to graduate and move on to a promising career and life. You can watch his comments online at www.campus-firewatch.com/video.html.

On Friday, November 2, President Bush was in South Carolina for a political fundraiser and expressed his condolences and sympathies by stating that "I know people are hurting when they think about the seven youngsters who had so much hope in their lives and had their life taken during that fire. I hope the families and loved ones can take comfort that, in this great state and around the nation, there's a lot of people praying for them."

Praying we must and we will indeed. But for us in the fire service, praying is not enough. We must take measured, sustained, progressive steps to rid the society of the menace of fire, and best serve our public, whom we are sworn to protect. We must focus more on fire prevention; and public education and code enforcement must be much higher priorities for us in the fire service.

The fire service must actively participate in the code development process, and we must change the construction codes to require residential fire sprinkler systems in all new homes. Just by this single action, we could reduce our total national fatalities by more than 80%. The International Code Council's (ICC) Final Action Hearing, on September 17-23, 2008, in Minneapolis, is where we must take a stance and make a historic change by voting for the adoption of a mandatory requirement to have residential fire sprinkler in all new homes.

The Fire service is the sleeping giant that is destined to play the highest role in the battle to mandate residential fire sprinklers in all new homes. It is time for this gentle giant to wake up and to best fulfill its professional obligation in protecting the public. Wake up gentle giant, wake up. For the sake of all of our country's children, please wake up. It is time for action.

In the short term, we must also aggressively address fire safety education for everyone, at all age levels. This will also have a dramatic impact on reducing fires across the nation if we can better educate everyone across the age spectrum and not just the young or the elderly. In one estimate, by focusing so much of our efforts on these two age groups, we are leaving out about two-thirds of the people in this country when it comes to fire safety education.

When a seven-year-old child dies in a fire because there were no smoke alarms present, he or she had nothing to do with that. An adult made that fateful decision. When a 70-year old person is killed in a fire because they were smoking while on oxygen - is it reasonable for us to expect them to change a lifetime of habits at that age? The answer is "no." Wouldn't it have been so much better to have changed their behavior when they were younger?

We have been teaching children about fire safety easily for over 20 years by now. So, shouldn't we have the most fire-safe generation around? And if this were true, wouldn't the number of fires and fire deaths be going down? One of the big reasons it is not, is that we have not been continuing the education throughout their lives, and by failing to do so, they are not passing on the fire safety messages to their own children because they don't know it themselves!

Improving fire safety in this country is a multi-faceted approach involving constant, ongoing efforts. We can achieve our goals, but it must be a collective effort by everyone involved. It is a huge challenge, but I know that it is one that the fire service is up to - we always are!

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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.

Ed Comeau is the owner of writer-tech.com, a technical writing firm that publishes Campus Firewatch, a monthly electronic newsletter that focuses on issues relating to campus fire safety. He is the founder and past-director of the Center for Campus Fire Safety, a non-profit education and advocacy organization focusing on the complex issues of campus fire safety. Mr. Comeau has been instrumental in developing educational material targeting students as well as raising national awareness of the importance of fire safety among parents, administrators, legislators and students. His writing has appeared in a number of international publications and he is the author of the campus fire safety chapter in the current edition of the NFPA Fire Protection Handbook.

Before forming writer-tech.com, Mr. Comeau was the chief fire investigator for the National Fire Protection Association's Fire Investigations department. He was responsible for the management of the department and conducted investigations of a number of major incidents, including: the Oklahoma City bombing; the Treasury Building fire in Washington, D.C.; the Rockefeller Center fire in New York City; the Kobe, Japan earthquake; the airport terminal fire in D??sseldorf, Germany; the English Channel Tunnel fire; and the Gothenburg, Sweden disco fire.

Before joining NFPA, Mr. Comeau was a fire protection engineer for the Phoenix Fire Department. While in this capacity he was responsible for organizing the department's Urban Search and Rescue program and developed training material for the department's technical rescue program in the areas of structural collapse, trench rescue and confined space operations. Prior to joining the Phoenix Fire Department he was a call fire fighter for the Amherst, MA, Fire Department.

Mr. Comeau holds a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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