Challenging The Status Quo: Eliminating Civilian Fire Deaths

Aug. 1, 2006

Recently, a new challenge was initiated by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), United States Fire Administration (USFA), the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and several non-government agencies to eliminate residential fire deaths by 2020. While this may seem an impossible goal, it may be more achievable than once thought.

Looking back, prior to 1974 when the USFA was established, the annual civilian fire death rate was estimated at 12,000. An early goal of the USFA was set to reduce fire deaths in the United States by 50-percent within 25 years. This goal was met. Although the civilian death rate continues to decline, the United States still has a death rate two to two-and-a-half times that of other industrialized nations; an unacceptable statistic.

Comparing the U.S. to other nations, the U.S. is surpassed in the area of fire prevention. This is especially true in the area of public safety education which ultimately changes behavior. Unfortunately fire prevention/education is also more long term effort, harder to quickly quantify benefits and not as exciting as firefighting.

It is clear that eliminating fire deaths can only be achieved by a multi-faceted approach. That approach involves the adoption of effective building codes, fire code enforcement, public fire education, working smoke detectors in homes, domestic sprinkler systems and effective firefighting operations with appropriate staffing and response times. In an attempt to share best practices, the remainder of this article describes the programs that have been implemented in Charlottesville, VA, and the outcome associated with these programs.

Smoke Detectors

Charlottesville has had great success in reducing residential fire deaths and it follows a long and extensive history of time, effort and resources. For the past nine years, Charlottesville has had zero fire deaths but that was only after some very specific and measurable actions. In 1995, Charlottesville Fire Chief Julian Taliaferro (now retired), set out to develop a strategy that would have lasting affects. One key part of the strategy was to install free smoke detectors in the homes of Charlottesville residents. Originally Satyendra Huja (former Community Development Director) identified Federal Community Block grants that could be used to purchase smoke detectors for 'at risk' homes. That program was so successful that it was expanded to become available to any home in Charlottesville. Utilizing on-duty resources, firefighters were soon installing free smoke detectors in homes as requested. Since 1995, over 1,000 smoke detectors have been installed in homes of Charlottesville residents. Keep in mind that prior to the free smoke detectors; Charlottesville never had more than two consecutive years without a civilian fire death - a measurable success. The program also has other benefits as it provides the opportunity to install smoke detectors for senior citizens which are one of the more vulnerable groups. It also created a fantastic relationship between firefighters and the citizens served. There were so many letters of appreciation that firefighters actually enjoy meeting the public and installing the smoke detectors.

Not resting on laurels, the Charlottesville Fire Department has implemented Project Smoke Detector to insure that every home in Charlottesville has a working smoke detector. Surveys and outreach involves the media, neighborhood associations, civic organizations, and telephone surveys as a means to visually map and validate smoke detector presence.

Public Fire Safety Education

Public fire safety education is another one of those areas of excellence in the Charlottesville Fire Department. The fire department has a number of programs that have been effective in helping educate children such as school education program, fire safety puppet program, public safety robots, fire safety house and more.

Fire Prevention/Code Enforcement

Charlottesville is a thriving community and was recognized in 2004 as the "Best Place to Live in America" and is nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and influenced by the philosophies of Thomas Jefferson. This recognition has resulted in housing and business growth. Key to the safety of buildings, the Fire Marshal's office coordinates building safety and code enforcement with the building inspector and neighborhood development services. The fire marshal works directly with fire suppression forces and coordinates business fire safety inspections. Home safety inspections are also done upon request.

Firefighting Resources

In Charlottesville, firefighters are directly involved with public safety education and fire prevention inspections. Unfortunately, fire prevention and safety education cannot always keep people from harm's way. When prevention and education fail, firefighting resources become the next level of defense to protect life and property. Charlottesville staffs it engines and ladder companies with a minimum of three persons, responds to residential structure fires with a minimum response of five engines, one ladder company and a battalion chief for a minimum complement of 19 persons. Within the city, fire units are able to respond to emergencies within five minutes 90-percent of the time. During the last five years, there have been three successful life-saving rescues made from residential structure fires.

Pulling It All Together

Some 33 years ago, Chief Julian Taliaferro began the process of building a "World Class" fire department. With an eye on being the best, he worked to develop a department that would become and is nationally recognized. The Charlottesville Fire Department achieved an ISO Class Rating of 2 (1 being the best) and became an Internationally Accredited fire department through the Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI). The department also has newly replaced protective clothing, SCBA and every fire unit is equipped with at least thermal image camera.

ISO and Accreditation are external objective performance measurement tools that help departments understand its present capabilities and assist in the development of future improvements. ISO is more focused on specific fire suppression characteristics where Accreditation is a more diverse and thorough evaluation of the entire fire department.

Beyond The Fire Department

The Charlottesville Fire Department is very proud of its accomplishments. That success is also recognition of other agencies that have supported the fire department. The City's Water department is one of the best in the country with excellent fire hydrant distribution and an ISO Water Class rating of 1. The City's Neighborhood Development Services and Building Official's office have been active partners insuring a safe building initiative through adoption of effective building codes and code enforcement. The regional Emergency Communications/911 Center provides the vital link with citizens and provides effective regional public safety communications system.

The partnership with the City Police Department (CPD) is very effective in the area of fire/arson investigation. CFD's Fire Marshal works directly with CPD's investigative/forensic division. This is paramount to identifying trends and/or arson situations and for the effective mitigation of identified problem trends.

The Final Note - It's The People

At the end of every day, it is the men and women of the Charlottesville Fire Department who must be credited with the success that the department has enjoyed. The dedicated personnel at the Charlottesville Fire Department always go an extra mile to serve the citizens of Charlottesville - and it shows!

Reducing residential fire deaths is a lofty but achievable goal - if every fire department accepts the challenge and takes steps to do the very best that it can.

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