Know Your Enemy

As I watched the memorial service and the nine flag draped caskets of our brothers in Charleston, I started thinking about the legendary Francis Brannigan's (whom I admire immensely) statement: "When a combustible structure is involved in fire, the building is the enemy, and you must know the enemy". As you know, Brannigan also had a famous column, "Know Your Enemy." It was a catchy title that was thought provoking, and effective in getting the firefighters to care about how construction of a building affected fire behavior and a building's response.

But, I believe that we need to take that even a step further. The problem doesn't start with the building; it starts with the construction codes. The building is an object, not our enemy. I believe our real enemies are the ones who allow such buildings to be built with little regard for the occupants' safety, and even less regard for the firefighters' safety. It is time to face that enemy and change our construction codes to better protect the occupants and our own firefighters.

Even though influenced by the Charleston fire, considering that investigations are still underway and we don't have the in-depth details and the solid facts yet, this article is intended to be general in nature and not specific to that particular fire. Some of the earliest reports though, mentioned factors such as multiple human errors and failures in house keeping policies and procedures that contributed to the ignition and the fast propagation of that fire which eventually led to the catastrophic failure in that particular fire.

But then those same human factors have historically been the roots of most commercial and residential fires, and the major contributors to the magnitude of fire problem in our country. 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. As of August 11, we have had a total of 289 fatalities in 71 multiple-fatality fires this year, where 165 (57%) of them have been children, and the remaining 124(43%) have been adults.

It is precisely because of these failure modes and human errors that I strongly believe in providing for the fail safe built-in automatic mode. I believe that we must utilize all available passive and active fire protection technologies to reduce the risk and decrease the adverse consequences of failures. Such technologies not only save the occupants lives, but also our own responding brothers and sisters.

Once again, I don't want to go into the details of the Charleston fire, but based on some of the contributing factors in that fire, I think that the Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas might have been somewhat correct in a way in his statement "sprinklers would not have put out the fire but would have at least slowed it". Had the fire sprinkler system been installed though, even if it might not have been able "put out the fire", it would have most likely slowed if not stopped the fire progression, preventing the flashover and the catastrophic structural failure; at least, not with our brothers inside.

We must remember that fire sprinklers do not prevent fires in the first place. Fire sprinklers merely minimize the adverse consequences of failure, once the fire has already ignited. That is why I believe so strongly in fire sprinklers; because fires would be controlled and the catastrophic consequences of failures would be much less.

Let me explain my use of the term "enemy". I realize that it has a strong negative connotation. And that it might sound contrary to what I have been writing all along, about the importance of working with the Building Officials in the International Code Council (ICC) process and with the builders in the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), in educating them, to cooperatively change the national construction codes. But then, we are losing lives daily; both ours, and the ones that we are sworn to protect.

In my mind, the word "enemy" doesn't exclusively mean prolonged antagonistic relationships. Having an enemy, opponent or adversary, truly calls for more diplomacy and negotiations. I don't view sprinkler opponents as "enemies" in a classical term, but as adversaries that we must defeat with sound logic and science in the various code arenas.

With that said then and with all due respect to our worthy adversaries in the building code development process, I believe that their delay in acknowledging the value of fire sprinklers in saving lives and property, thus requiring them in the main body of their construction codes for all new construction, is only prolonging the agony.

By now, they know quite well, especially after the Rochester ICC Final Code Hearings last May, that it is inevitable, and it is only a matter of time before fire sprinkler systems protect all newly constructed homes in America. Their delay though is costly, and their postponement is causing thousands of combined civilians and firefighters lives to be lost nationally, every single year.

Let me be clear that I am not pointing the finger and merely blaming the fire sprinkler opponents for the fire problem in our country. We should first look at ourselves before blaming others. I sincerely believe that we in the fire service share that burden too. Let's face it, our low priority for fire prevention and lack of strong participation in the code development process, are significant contributors to the magnitude of the fire problem in our country.

I believe that our own archaic views in the fire service with regards to the importance of fire prevention and its priority is clearly indicative that, we are at times, our own worst enemy. I believe that if we truly want to address the fire problem in our country, then we must first start with self and rearrange our outdated priorities. Meanwhile we must engrave this message in every single firefighter's mind: "Fire Sprinklers 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.

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