Prevention From a Comprehensive Point of View

July 5, 2004
What should Fire Chiefs, City or County Administrators and elected officials be looking for in a Fire Marshal?
What does running a fire prevention program look like these days? And what should Fire Chiefs, City or County Administrators and elected officials be looking for in a Fire Marshal? The answer is simple to many, but evidently complicated enough that I am constantly amazed at the number of people who have not heard about prevention from a holistic view.

To begin with, fire prevention is more than just managing fire codes and conducting inspections. Not that this particular job is easy. Consider this: a fire occurs in an occupancy that recently received an inspection from one of your staff. Your Fire Marshal is having difficulty finding the records - in fact you've found the one that says the inspection identified several hazards, but the paperwork about abating them is nowhere in sight. Worried just a bit? Thinking it's still an idea to have someone running this program that couldn't make it on the line?

Or try this one. Your firefighters are complaining because they just received some outside training on prevention - and are wondering why your own fire training center uses illegal fire stops on the doors. It gets better don't you know.

Because managing a modern prevention effort means it goes beyond fire codes. We have all those pesky emergency medical runs to think about, and darned if the tools we apply to fire prevention aren't the same ones applied to preventing injury. The medical community has better names for them of course. The say things like: reducing morbidity and mortality. To a simple person like that me that means preventing injuries and death. But the concepts are the same. We engineer solutions like fire sprinkler systems, fire resistive construction - and isn't it amazing that things like bicycle helmets, seat belts and airbags have the same basic function?

But now you're wondering if the fire or the building code addresses fire sprinklers. And who cares about them anyway until the national news gets to the story of a little nightclub fire that kills over a hundred people. Now your local media wants to know what the requirements are for your town, and whey they are - the way they are! Who decided that public assemblies should only require fire sprinklers after 300 people were gathered together - and why did they do that? Does your Fire Marshal have any idea how the code promulgating systems work - and where the fire service fits in?

And there are pesky things to deal with like fire investigations. What is their purpose anyway? We say it's cause and origin, unless arson is involved - then there is some criminal law involved and, well, that is a police matter. But ask yourself, what was the cause of the World Trade Center fire? If the cause is so evident, then why are we spending so much time and energy (and money) investigating it? Could it be that we need to know more than the cause? Is it really the construction features and human behavior that contribute to building collapse and increased fire deaths we need some more information about? Won't that help shape our code promulgating processes?

I'm almost out of wind thinking about it. OK not quite yet. Because there is the public education side of things. We all talk a mean fight. But where do we still look for cuts when budgets get tight? Well we don't raise any revenue if we don't conduct inspections. And fires must be investigated. The Building department really handles the plan review stuff anyway - but no one will complain too much if our public education programs are cut. And who knows the difference between education and information anyway? I think they're just a bunch of crazy party animals (public educators) who secretly wished they could be Mr. Rodgers and play with puppets anyway.

Forget where most of our fires and fire deaths occur. Forget that we can't really regulate things where people live - and sleep, with candles lit and cigarettes burning and that darned smoke alarm is disconnected because my husband burned the dinner again! And to top it off the home where we installed a smoke alarm last year just had a fire, now the City attorney wants to know where our waiver form records are because the family says our donated detector didn't work.

So, let me ask it again. Still think this is a job for Fred who broke his leg and can no longer work on the line? Unless Fred has a lot of time and a lot of training you're all headed for trouble. Do you have any energy for some work devoted to checking and maintaining the fire escapes your firefighters use to reach trapped victims or utilize the standpipe system. If it works? If it isn't clogged with some debris at the fire department connection?

I'm certain even the most jaded person will get my point. Managing prevention programs is no place for anyone but a professional. And thank goodness there are many out there who have already received the message. They're moving in the right direction.

But there are still too many who think that fire prevention excludes other safety issues. And they believe that if we change our clock - changing batteries on a 10 year smoke alarm with lithium batteries and a hush feature will somehow be a good thing. And an inspection program and a fire safety house is all it takes to reach the low income, the seniors, the young and the ethnic minorities who need to hear our preventive measures.

It's not as simple as it used to be. Just like firefighting isn't as simple as it used to be.

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