To Be, or Not to Be

Do you know why I write so much about the 1947 President's Conference on Fire Prevention? To point out that we in the fire service, not only have known clearly about the crux of the fire problem in America for more than six decades; but we also have the wisdom and the vision to identify solutions to address the problem.

Read the findings and recommendations of that conference and you can see that not only did they accurately depict the fire problems back then; but in a way, six decades later, some of them are still applicable to the fire and life safety challenges in our country today.

Look around you - simple technological advancements prove that much has changed in the world since 1947. Walking down memory lane just to take a brief glance at our recent history from then to now reveals significant milestones. President Truman ended World War II and introduced us to the nuclear age; then came the Cold War era; amongst all that, mankind looked to space, and walked on the moon; and only a few years later came the Internet and the high speed super-highway of the information age; and now we are entering the global warming era and the environmental awareness age. We have come along way indeed, haven't we?

But yet, it seems that in our fire world, despite all our advances, we still have a tremendous time lag in some areas, and then in others, we have simply been frozen in time. Am I exaggerating? Maybe, but the accuracy and current applicability of President Truman's statement should make us ponder. In the 1947 conference, President Truman stated "the serious losses in life and property resulting annually from fires cause me deep concern. I am sure that such unnecessary waste can be reduced. The substantial progress made in the science of fire prevention and fire protection in this country during the past 40 years convinces me that the means are available for limiting this unnecessary destruction".

He talked about our failure to use the means available from the early part of the 20th century to address the country's fire problem. Keep in mind that it was the World War I technology that he was talking about that he believed could decrease the "unnecessary destruction" of fire. Yet, amazingly enough, at the early years of the millennium in the 21st century, we have had the feasible technologies for decades, and yet persistently have failed to fully utilize them to address the fire problem in our country. History might be a great teacher, but bashfully, we must admit that we are not too good of a student, are we?

The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) on February 16, 2007, after experiencing 59 residential fire fatalities around the country in only a two weeks time, issued a press release titled "Fire Chiefs Plead with Media for Help in Reducing Fire Fatalities". This press release stated "The International Association of Fire Chiefs is pleading with the media to help us inform the public of the high number of house fires with fatalities that have occurred since the beginning of February. "We have lost too many people in home fires in the last two weeks," said President Chief Jim Harmes."

Chief Harmes is absolutely correct that "we have lost too many people in home fires". But then this is not just simply about or merely limited to the current fire losses that we have experienced recently. This happens day in and day out all across America. We have too many residential fires, and we lose too many lives, year after year in this country. The sad truth is that because these fire fatalities are one and two here, and one and two there; they never make the national headlines, thus the general public is unaware. At best, they might see the trees, but then not recognize the forest.

The fact that we have brought down our annual fire fatalities from the 10,000 range in the early 70s, to the current 4,000 plateau where we have stayed for the past decade, should not make us complacent. What the general public might not know, we in the fire service know quite well. We have known for far too long about the trend in our national fire statistics, and that the crux of the current fire problem in America is still the residential fires.

To be, or not to be: that is the question. We need to do a gut check and in all sincerity answer the question whether, as fire professionals, we believe that the current annual fire loss in our country is an acceptable loss, or not? This is not a trick question, and there is no right or wrong answer. But, it is a question that we must answer truthfully, to determine whether the path that we are on is actually going to be taking us to where we want to be. Once this question is answered, the only caveat is that our professional obligation as public servants demands that we must then walk the talk.

From the logical and statistical view, there is absolutely nothing wrong to believe that it is inevitable to have fire losses in our country of almost 300 million people, and that the current 4,000 fire fatalities plateau is an acceptable loss level. If that indeed is our answer; then maintaining the status quo and staying the current course, could be viewed as appropriate. We have done the best that we can, by quickly responding to fires and putting them out, and have cut the national fire fatalities by more than half in the past 30 years. Nothing wrong with that success, and we should all be proud of our accomplishments.

But, if our answer to that question is, that the current fire losses in our country is indeed not acceptable; then staying with the current course might not be prudent, and we need to analyze our performance and take corrective measures to adjust our approaches, in order to further reduce those unacceptable losses.

I for one believe that such losses are excessive and unacceptable, especially considering that we already have the feasible technologies available to further minimize those losses. I believe that Chief Harmes statement that "we have lost too many people in home fires" is also reflective of such stance. Even further than that, I believe that his plea to the media, is in reality the "call to arms" for the fire service in our country, to better address this menace plaguing our communities all across the country.

Again, it is important to answer that main question in all honesty. We must make sure that we don't talk from both sides of our mouths, and that we actually walk the talk.

I believe that our track record since the 1947 President's Conference on Fire Prevention proves that we talk a good game, and know quite well that to address the fire problem in our country, we must be proactive and focus more on measures such as public education and fire prevention. But, then we persistently focus extensively on mere reactive measures to address the fire problem, and disregard the recommendations of the 1947 President's Conference, the 1973 America Burning report, the 1987 America Burning revisited report, the 2000 America at Risk report, and many other national seminars and conferences that we have annually. My friends, we talk a good game; but do we walk the talk?

I maybe wrong, but it seems that in general, even if not in our words but in our actions, we have accepted the status quo. Again in general, it appears that we have prescribed to the perspective that residential fires and their associated fire fatalities are unfortunately the normal collateral damages, which are considered as an acceptable loss level. Am I wrong?

Thanks to the United States Fire Administration (USFA) and their extensive campaign in promoting smoke alarms in the 70s and 80s. As a result, the fire fatalities where brought down to the current levels and have remained there for some time. But since then, what have we done differently to address the fire problem in our country for the past two decades? We are still reacting to the calls and sending our red fire engines to put out the fires, don't we?

My friends, responding to fires and mitigating the hazards is an absolute necessity and a very important part of what we do in the fire service. But is that enough? Do you sincerely believe that we are doing the best that we can, and that there isn't much more that we can do to reduce our national fire fatality rates? I think not.

We need a paradigm shift. We must fully recognize and unequivocally acknowledge that we indeed must do much more to reduce our country's fire fatalities. No, not even this paradigm shift concept itself is anything new. We have known about it a lot longer than the words "paradigm shift" even became fashionable in the leadership circles. We have known a lot longer than the 1973 America Burning report, that preventing fires in the first place, is the best solution to the fire problem; and that we must focus a much higher priority on fire prevention and public education. Remember Ben Franklin's statement "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure"? Yep, it goes back that far!

In the NFPA Journal September 2006 article, titled "Fire Loss in the United States During 2005" it is stated that "with home fire deaths still accounting for 3,030 fire deaths or 82% of all civilian deaths, fire safety initiatives targeted at the home remain the key to any reductions in the overall fire death toll". And on their website, Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC) claims that "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?

From a fire service perspective, we know that residential fire sprinkler systems are primarily intended as life-safety systems, but they do much more than just save lives. Not only do these systems increase the survival window for occupants by stopping fire spread and impeding flashover, they also create a safer environment for our responding firefighters, minimizing the possible need for interior search and rescue and required fire suppression operations under conditions that can kill or injure firefighters. Simply put, residential fire sprinkler systems save not only occupants' lives but our firefighters' lives as well. Additionally, by suppressing fires in the incipient stages, residential fire sprinkler systems also decrease the adverse economic impact of residential fires and the impact upon the environment.

Today, there is an inventory of around one hundred million existing dwellings in our country; so clearly, installing residential fire sprinkler systems in the roughly 1.5 million new homes that are constructed each year will not be an immediate solution to the country's fire problem. Nevertheless, putting sprinklers in today's new homes is the only systematic, long-range approach capable of reducing tomorrow's fire fatalities, while also reducing our total national fire cost. Today's new homes are tomorrow's older homes, where we will be compiling our future fire loss statistics. Closing our eyes on this reality will only prolong this "unnecessary destruction".

Why then do our building codes allow the construction of new homes without the protection of the residential fire sprinkler systems? This simply makes no sense.

With all our heart and soul, those of us in the business of public safety - engineers, architects, code officials, firefighters, home builders and others, must sincerely believe in the importance of reducing fire losses in our communities. This I believe is our highest professional obligation. By taking advantage of all available technologies, including smoke alarms and residential fire sprinkler systems, we can accomplish our mission.

President Truman was right that "the means are available for limiting this unnecessary destruction". It is a shame to admit that after six decades, we are still frozen in time and have not still fully utilized all available technologies to address the crux of the fire problem in our country. It is time for a shift in our national policy to mandate residential sprinklers in all new dwellings.

Related Content:


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.

Loading