Means, Not the End

Without allocating additional funding, focusing on the engineering aspect of fire prevention could save lives and reduce property losses.


October is National Fire Prevention Month, but fire prevention must be our priority year-round. The recent firefighter fatalities in the abandoned Deutsche Bank tower fire in New York, where the standpipe system was out of service and failed to operate when it was needed most, underlines the importance of the inspection and code enforcement aspects of our fire prevention duties.

The magnitude of the catastrophic multiple-fatality fires (three or more deaths per fire) that have plagued us especially hard this year also proves the importance of fire prevention. It clearly proves that smoke alarm and residential fire sprinkler system technologies have significant life safety value and in conjunction with systematic public education efforts would be of utmost importance in reducing our national fire fatalities. As of October 17, 2007, we have had a total of 346 fatalities in 88 multiple-fatality fires this year, where 193 (56%) of them have been children, and the remaining 153 (44%) have been adults.

The 1973 America Burning report is an invaluable document and a heritage of America's fire service. The report draws attention to the importance of fire prevention in addressing the fire problem in our country and states "There needs to be more emphasis on fire prevention. Fire departments, many of which confine their roles to putting out fires and rescuing its victims, need to expend more efforts to educate children on fire safety, to educate adults through residential inspections, to enforce fire prevention codes, and to see that fire safety is designed into buildings... The commission recommends that local governments make fire prevention at least equal to suppression in the planning of fire department priorities."

The book Public Administration in America by George Gordon defines budgets as reflecting "the mission or purpose for a bureaucratic agency's existence. This suggests still another function of budgets, intentional or not: they represent the priorities of those who formulated them." Then it is only fair to say that based on the available statistics and as a reflection of resources allocated to fire prevention in our departments all across the country, "intentional or not", fire prevention is still not a high priority for our country's fire service. Today's realities prove that, 34 years later, we in the fire service have still not fully achieved the goals and implemented the recommendations of the 1973 America Burning report.

Fire prevention deserves a lot more attention and a much higher priority if we indeed are deeply committed to address the fire problem in our country. I believe in the three E's of fire prevention that was first discussed in the 1947 President's Conference on Fire Prevention; Education, Enforcement; and Engineering. All three are very important. And if I had to put them in the order of priority, I would have listed them just as I did.

I believe that education is the most important one, because it focuses extensively on the three main contributors to the fire problem in our country, who also happen to be the main benefactors of our mitigations efforts; men, women, and children.

Enforcement, the carrots and sticks approach in a sense, then reminds them of the legal consequences of their failures and the associated liabilities. The recent catastrophic fires in Charleston and New York once again clearly underlined the importance of code enforcement, both during construction in new buildings and also maintenance of the systems in existing buildings.

Through the application technology, engineering then tries to minimize the risks and decrease the failure consequences, thus reducing the magnitude of the damage by limiting the fire growth and progression.

As mentioned previously, today's realities indicate that the lion's share of our resources is allocated for our suppression efforts. Until or if that paradigm changes, our ability to do education and enforcement is very much limited, simply because we don't have the resources to do the job that we all know could better address the fire problem in our country.

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