Means, Not the End

Oct. 17, 2007
Without allocating additional funding, focusing on the engineering aspect of fire prevention could save lives and reduce property losses.

October is National Fire Prevention Month, but fire prevention must be our priority year-round. The recent firefighter fatalities in the abandoned Deutsche Bank tower fire in New York, where the standpipe system was out of service and failed to operate when it was needed most, underlines the importance of the inspection and code enforcement aspects of our fire prevention duties.

The magnitude of the catastrophic multiple-fatality fires (three or more deaths per fire) that have plagued us especially hard this year also proves the importance of fire prevention. It clearly proves that smoke alarm and residential fire sprinkler system technologies have significant life safety value and in conjunction with systematic public education efforts would be of utmost importance in reducing our national fire fatalities. As of October 17, 2007, we have had a total of 346 fatalities in 88 multiple-fatality fires this year, where 193 (56%) of them have been children, and the remaining 153 (44%) have been adults.

The 1973 America Burning report is an invaluable document and a heritage of America's fire service. The report draws attention to the importance of fire prevention in addressing the fire problem in our country and states "There needs to be more emphasis on fire prevention. Fire departments, many of which confine their roles to putting out fires and rescuing its victims, need to expend more efforts to educate children on fire safety, to educate adults through residential inspections, to enforce fire prevention codes, and to see that fire safety is designed into buildings... The commission recommends that local governments make fire prevention at least equal to suppression in the planning of fire department priorities."

The book Public Administration in America by George Gordon defines budgets as reflecting "the mission or purpose for a bureaucratic agency's existence. This suggests still another function of budgets, intentional or not: they represent the priorities of those who formulated them." Then it is only fair to say that based on the available statistics and as a reflection of resources allocated to fire prevention in our departments all across the country, "intentional or not", fire prevention is still not a high priority for our country's fire service. Today's realities prove that, 34 years later, we in the fire service have still not fully achieved the goals and implemented the recommendations of the 1973 America Burning report.

Fire prevention deserves a lot more attention and a much higher priority if we indeed are deeply committed to address the fire problem in our country. I believe in the three E's of fire prevention that was first discussed in the 1947 President's Conference on Fire Prevention; Education, Enforcement; and Engineering. All three are very important. And if I had to put them in the order of priority, I would have listed them just as I did.

I believe that education is the most important one, because it focuses extensively on the three main contributors to the fire problem in our country, who also happen to be the main benefactors of our mitigations efforts; men, women, and children.

Enforcement, the carrots and sticks approach in a sense, then reminds them of the legal consequences of their failures and the associated liabilities. The recent catastrophic fires in Charleston and New York once again clearly underlined the importance of code enforcement, both during construction in new buildings and also maintenance of the systems in existing buildings.

Through the application technology, engineering then tries to minimize the risks and decrease the failure consequences, thus reducing the magnitude of the damage by limiting the fire growth and progression.

As mentioned previously, today's realities indicate that the lion's share of our resources is allocated for our suppression efforts. Until or if that paradigm changes, our ability to do education and enforcement is very much limited, simply because we don't have the resources to do the job that we all know could better address the fire problem in our country.

Then I believe that it would only make logical sense to focus more extensively on the other fire prevention parameter that we have some limited control over, and that is, engineering. Engineering provides us the opportunity to better protect both our citizens and firefighters without the need for drastic fiscal shift of resources in our departments.

Realistically, I don't believe that in the foreseeable future we would see that major paradigm shift recommended by the 1973 America Burning report for allocation of more resources to fire prevention. Considering that the Assistance to Firefighters Grants statistics prove the high demand and the scarcity of the available resources, I don't believe that nationally the allocations for fire prevention could expected to be changed.

That being said, we need to live within our current means, and yet accomplish our fire and life safety objective of reducing fire fatalities. Here is where the reliance on technology and engineering solutions could be of tremendous value in achieving our goals, without the necessity for the fiscal realignment within our departments. Simply stated, without allocating additional funding, focusing on the engineering aspect of fire prevention could save lives and reduce property losses.

I have written many articles about the great value of the fire sprinkler technology. I want to make a clear distinction though that by engineering I am not simply referring to only the fire sprinkler systems, but all available passive and active built-in fire protection technologies. I believe that fire sprinklers are not the end, but merely the means.

While fire sprinklers can't prevent fires, they can minimize the adverse consequences of failure once the fire has ignited. 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". Focused on reducing the fire fatalities in residential occupancies, 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".

We do indeed know what and where we should be focusing our efforts, 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". 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.

Yet, 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 two percent of homes in our country. We must all strive to change the building codes to require residential fire sprinklers in all new homes.

I believe that based on the feasibility and availability of the current fire protection technology, automatic fire sprinkler systems present the most effective means of saving lives; both occupants, and our own firefighters. At this time, it is simply "the biggest bang for the buck".

This fire prevention month, let's make it our focus to educate our public about the life saving value of the fire sprinklers in better protecting our communities. I believe that it is also our responsibility to educate all our own firefighters that just like their PPE, and just as important. fire sprinklers protect them from the hostile fire environment in their interior operations. We must engrave this message in every single firefighter's mind: "Fire Sprinklers Save Firefighters' Lives Too".

Azarang (Ozzie) Mirkhah, 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: [email protected]. To view all of Ozzie's articles on, please click here.

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