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?