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...

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.”