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Prevention Points: Ripped from the Headlines

Reading the news headlines of 2011, I have to wonder if we in the fire service have learned anything; especially after recently learning that the buildings which claimed the lives of two of our brothers in Chicago and another in Worcester had outstanding codes violations – “Charges Against Owner of Building in Chicago LODDs” and “Building Where Mass. Firefighter Died Had Violations.” Reading these stories is like hearing an ominous voice booming from the shadows foretelling of disaster if we do not take heed!  A voice that becomes more mocking with each article:

Code Violations Found in Massive Fla. Motel Fire
Connecticut Report: Landlord Had History Of Code Violations
West Virginia Grease Fire Leaves 14 Families Homeless after Firefighters Find Violations
OSHA Finds Violations in Deadly Idaho Fire
Torched California Hotel Had Many Violations
Fire Code Violations Found In D.C. Home Where Student Died In Blaze
Violations Cited At Ocala Plant Where Explosion Killed Worker
House Hit With Violations Before Deadly Blaze
Company Facing Serious Violations in New York Building Collapse
University of Maryland Cited for Safety Violations in Fatal Blast

These articles are but a few fables that even a child receiving a bedtime story can surmise the lesson to be taught. Why is it we cannot? These stories are no different than the stories of old going back to our founding in Jamestown, VA, in the early 1600s. Even Captain John Smith, in-between leading the colony and courting Pocahontas, understood the dangers of fire and the need for prevention, as did Benjamin Franklin, who wrote about fire prevention under his pseudonym in his own publications; “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is one of Franklin’s fire safety messages about the carrying of smoldering embers through wooden homes.

Yet we continue to ignore the moral to these stories – that if you invest in prevention, if you focus your resources, you will save lives – civilian and firefighter alike. So why don’t we do it? During this economic crisis, the prevention divisions, departments, offices and one-man fighting holes took the greatest hits; and still fire apparatus with personnel as resources continue to largely sit behind bay doors waiting for the risk to occur. When we actually do prevention activities, we have the same approach as we did in the 1970s.

As I have stated over and over, prevention in the United States largely involves just building codes and inspections – that’s it? There is a fallacy held by many that once the building owner is notified of a violation, then that is enough, that the onus is on them and the department/inspector can wash their hands of it.

What about the innocent/unaware civilian who walks into this building in the middle of the faceoff between the building owner and inspector; the paperwork of the violations buried on some desk. When the fire occurs, as it did in West Warwick, RI, and lives are lost, fingers start pointing back and forth and the “he said/she said” begins, leaving it to the courts to figure it all out; maybe they do, maybe they don’t, maybe someone does jail time, maybe they pay a fine, but that does little to comfort the families of those lost in the fire and the victims that cannot be brought back.

Yes even a child receiving a bedtime story can surmise the lesson to be taught.

If you were to tell a child that it is the job of every firefighter to save lives and property from fire, and then read that child these very headlines, what would the innocence in their answers reveal?

Lesson one – Fire Protection. We are in the fire protection business, and once the flames erupt, we are able to protect little. Flashover is occurring quicker and quicker and producing more BTUs, and, more often than not, by the time the tones sound in our station to alert us to the fire, it is too late for us to do anything; especially for the trapped victims. This may explain the lack of any real decline in fire deaths over the last decade. So is this true fire protection?

Fire personnel need to be on the street conducting fire prevention as part of their daily duties. This should not just be left in the hands of the few fire inspectors in the prevention office. Not only does this increase fire prevention, but your firefighters are now educating themselves on the building they may be crawling through one day, and they may see a door or window that will save their life during a future Mayday! Yet another life saved – and this time one of our own.

Lesson two – Education. Merely telling a business owner there is a violation is not always the fix-it-all. There are inspectors out there who flash a badge, list the correction, leave the violation order and walk out. There are inspectors who assume the business owner sees the same risk to life safety that a violation causes and takes it just as seriously; how a simple box in an egress passageway could cause a multiple loss of life. The general public does not see a building the way we do because they have not seen the tragedy we have. Inspections are also about education.

Education in advance helps develop rapport and understanding. Would making it a requirement that a business owner attend a Fire & Life Safety presentation by the fire department before having their business license renewed be a good option? Think about the opportunities this provides to properly educate the owners on the dangers of having that one simple box in the egress path, especially after watching the video from the Station nightclub fire. Before the inspector walks in the door, the business owner can be educated on what the inspector is looking for and what the consequences are for failing to comply legally and ethically. It will also provide them with the information they need to keep their business and patrons safe.

Lesson three – Consequences! This is a simple lesson even a child understands, and is used in the basics of discipline from day one in child rearing. “If you do ‘A’ then ‘B’ will result;” thus if the child finds “B” undesirable, they are less likely to do “A.” Simple cause and effect that has lead many children down the right path to a healthy life.

Fire Chief’s pay heed because this is where you all are largely failing and causing a significant cog in the wheel of fire prevention; and the resulting vibrations rippling throughout the prevention community are causing a breakdown. At all the conferences in which I have presented, and with all the firefighters and inspectors I have met, this is their number one complaint – they write a business owner up for the same violation several times, yet there is no resulting “B.” This has huge impacts across the spectrum of public safety by:

  1. Word gets out that the inspector writing the violation has no real means to enforce the code. When your inspector walks into a business, he becomes a joke that the owner largely “humors” along with the violations he/she finds.
  2. Inspectors lose value in their purpose. They do their job, they write the violations, they follow procedures, but nothing results from it. The violation continues month after month and year after year. Talk about not finding value and importance in your duties?
  3. Prevention loses value. What do the other members in your department see in the inspector’s lack of being able to correct violations that will lead to loss of life (possibly theirs) and property? Now how does your whole department value prevention? Prevention should be the hub of your department, and in many proven successful departments, it is. Backing your inspectors and allowing them to make a difference goes a long way.

Why is there a lack of consequences and follow through? I won’t even begin to surmise, but it does occur, and it continues to kill people – firefighter and civilian alike – for preventable and needless reasons. Fire Chiefs need to work with local government and develop an understanding on fire codes, the importance of fire codes, the significant impacts that failing to follow fire codes will have on the community and the benefits of doing so.

I write this in the shadows of yet another ominous headline resulting from a preventable fire caused by misplaced fireplace ashes by a contractor working on the home, and lack of smoke detectors, which lead to the death of two adults and three children: “Conn. Firefighters Offered Counseling After Deadly Fire: The Christmas morning fire that killed five people was devastating to the firefighters who responded.”

We know what the problems are! We know how to correct them! Even a child can figure it out. It is time for the fire service to learn from the very lessons it sees day in and day out. It is time for every firefighter in our service of brotherhood to apply those lessons every day they are in the public.

Will we prevent 100% of the fires? NO! Will every business owner see the woes of their ways and comply without pursuit? NO! But you never know what business owner, what business, or what violation will lead to the next blaze, civilian death or LODD.

Pay attention, learn, educate and prevent; or the next headline ripped may be yours. 

DANIEL BYRNE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a firefighter/paramedic, with the Burton Fire District in Burton, SC. A 20-year veteran of the emergency services, he holds both an associate and bachelors degree in fire science, is a National Fire Academy Alumni, and a veteran of the Desert Shield/Storm war with the U.S. Marine Corps. Daniel is the recipient of local and state awards for public educations and relations. Daniel is moderator of the Fire Prevention and Life Safety forums on Firehouse and has been guest on two Firehouse.com podcasts: Fire Prevention Week 2011, 2010 Fire and Life Safety Roundtable and Developing and Adapting Successful Fire Prevention Applications. You can reach Daniel by e-mail at dbyrne.burtonfd@gmail.com.

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