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.