America Burning Study 40 Years Old: Forecast the Need for Better Fire Prevention and Codes

BY ED METZ

Forty years ago this past July, a group of 20 distinguished men and women from all parts of the country and from many different walks of life came together for the first time in Room 2010 of the New Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., to begin mapping out a course that would lead to new efforts in fire prevention and control in the United States. The group was established in response to Title II of the Fire Research and Safety Act of 1968, which had called for a national commission to undertake a comprehensive study and investigation to “determine the most practical and effective measures to reduce the destructive effects of fire.”1

By November 1970, congressional funding had been secured and President Nixon was able to name the 20-member commission, consisting of the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and 18 additional members.2 The appointees were leading individuals from the career and volunteer fire service, industry, education, medicine, research, nonprofits, and trade associations. All had an interest in the fire problem then raging in America.3

Richard E. Bland, the chairman of the commission, was a professor of engineering research at the Institute for Science and Engineering at Pennsylvania State University. He also served as chief of the volunteer fire department for the borough of State College, Pennsylvania. A certified fire instructor and an ambulance attendant, Bland believed strongly that technology could provide the tools to “materially improve the efficiency of fire suppression and prevention forces.”4

He would spend the next two years leading the commission in public hearings around the country, taking testimony from more than 92 witnesses; speaking out to the press on contemporary fire problems, particularly in the wake of the numerous fire tragedies that punctuated this period; and helping to formulate the 90 recommendations in the commission’s final report aimed at finding “ways to reduce death, injuries, and property losses from fire by 50 percent in the next generation.”5

THE NATION’S FIRE PROBLEM IN 1971

The scope of the fire problem confronting the nation in the summer of 1971, when the commission first met, was extensive. By the best estimates available to the commission, there were some 143,500 fire deaths in the United States between the years 1961 and 1972—or three times the number of casualties incurred in the Vietnam War up to that time (45,000).6 In 1971 alone, 2.512 million fires killed 12,200 people, and the nation had incurred a property loss of some $2.8 billion.7 More people were dying from fires each year than from polio at its peak.8

(1) Chairman Richard E. Bland speaking at the first meeting of the commission in the New Executive Office Building, July 20, 1972. Howard McClennan, vice chairman, is seated to his immediate left. [Photos courtesy of Record Group 220, Still Picture Records Section, Special Media Archives Services Division (NWCS-S), National Archives and Records Administration at College Park.]

While looking at the fire problem as a whole, the commission would also focus its attention on several critical areas. One- and two-family residences, as the commission noted, accounted for some 80 percent of fire fatalities, and the fire prevention code at that time did not apply to single-family dwellings.5 Mobile homes in particular were seen as a fire hazard to their occupants. Highly flammable and difficult to escape from, mobile homes, without any fire safety requirements, at that time housed some seven million people.9

The problem of high-rise fires had also captured national attention when in August 1970, 1 New York Plaza burned for some five hours, killing two and injuring 35.10 The commission noted at the time that there were no federal laws requiring sprinkler systems or fire escapes or fire towers in high-rise buildings and rather than being “fireproof,” as touted by some, they were more aptly described as “escapeproof.”11

(2) The commission traveled around the country in 1972 for a series of public hearings.

Firefighters also keenly felt the severity of the fire problem. In 1971, it was among the most dangerous professions in the United States. Statistics showed an injury rate of 39.6 per 100 men and a total of more than 200 fatalities per year. Problems of inadequate protective equipment and clothing plagued the fire service. Chairman Bland, himself, noted that clothing for firefighters at that time did not approach even the standards laid out in the Flammable Fabrics Act for children’s clothing.5 After nine firefighters were killed in a Boston fire in June 1972, Bland and Vice-Chairman Howard McClennan were named as the President’s personal representatives to attend the funeral services.12

THE WORK AND FOCUS OF THE COMMISSION

The objective the commission set for itself was to identify where the weaknesses were in the overall fire prevention and control system and to find ways to address these particular problem areas cited above. The commission met almost monthly for two years; it was supported by a small staff led by Executive Director Howard Tipton, who later became the first administrator of the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration. Public and private interest groups were invited to provide position papers and testimony at public hearings. Commission members visited numerous meetings of fire and life safety organizations to share and receive input. More than 100 organizations and individuals were solicited for position papers on fire prevention, fire protection, and life safety in buildings, as well as the proper role of the federal government.

The commission, in 1971, reached out to the wider fire service community in the form of a 32-question survey, sent to more than 27,000 departments nationwide.13-14 In the more than 10,000 survey responses the commission received, the need for better personal protective clothing and equipment for firefighters and increased spending on public fire safety education were cited most often.13,14,6

PUBLIC HEARINGS

The commission’s series of public hearings began with sessions that took place February 15-17, 1972, in the old Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. The focus of the first hearing was to get an overview of the nation’s fire problem. Testimony was heard from some 25 fire prevention organizations, fire chiefs, and other expert witnesses concerning arson, the need for more prevention education, early detection and alarm systems, improved equipment and clothing for firefighters, and the need for a National Fire Academy.15,6,16

(3) Chairman Bland speaking to the press in California.

The second public hearing was held in Dallas, Texas, on April 24-25, 1972, and covered more detail about the challenges and needs of the fire service. The commission held its third set of public hearings in Los Angeles and San Francisco, California, in July. The focus of these hearings was on building fire safety, in particular the toxicity of construction materials, egress to safe areas during a fire, the special problems posed by mobile homes and high-rise buildings, and the strengthening and enforcement of life safety codes.13

Chicago was the venue for the fourth public hearing, held October 3-5, 1972. It was centered chiefly on fire prevention and public education but also covered recovery aspects such as insurance, medical treatment, and rehabilitation. The commission heard from individuals like Chief Fire Marshal Curtis Volkamer of Chicago, who shared ways for improving public education, and Barbara Hill, a teacher from Santa Ana, California, who showed a film depicting her fire prevention program for elementary schools. Her program stressed the need for teamwork between firefighters and teachers, with firefighters telling what to teach and teachers telling firefighters how best to get the message across to children. James C. Robertson, Maryland state fire marshal, argued for including fire prevention instruction in state and local firefighter training, as well as for retroactively applying codes because of substandard housing in all types of construction. William Christian, an engineer with Underwriters Laboratories, endorsed the use of “self-contained smoke detectors,” and Stanley Emery, New Hampshire state fire marshal, likewise urged the commission to “consider the possibility of installing an approved detector in every home in the country.”17

TRAGIC FIRES

It wasn’t long after the conclusion of the hearings in Chicago that a series of deadly high-rise fires captured national headlines and thrust the work of the Commission into the national spotlight once more. The Rault Center fire in New Orleans, Louisiana, on November 29, 1972, and the Atlanta, Georgia, Baptist Towers nursing home fire on November 30, 1972, resulted in 13 fatalities and more than two dozen injuries.18 At the request of the White House, the commission was asked to ascertain some of the facts behind the deadly nature of these tragedies. Bland issued a statement to the press stating that these two fires underscored the need for codes: “If the people of this nation want a significant decrease in life and property loss, it will result from their insistence that codes be adopted and enforced without deviation.”18 These were by no means the only incidents that had punctuated the meetings of the commission during its tenure. Tragedies like the Green Nursing Home (Ohio) fire in January 1972, where nine were killed; the Fair Hills nursing home fire near Rosecrans, Wisconsin, in April 1972, which claimed 10 lives; and a Springfield, Missouri, nursing home in May that killed 10 more led the commission to attempt to determine whether smoke or fire detectors were in operation at these homes and whether evacuation plans were in place and rehearsed.19,20,21 After a particularly terrible fire that claimed 15 lives at the Geiger nursing home in Pennsylvania on October 19, 1972, Bland decried the terrible fire safety conditions of the nation’s nursing homes over the NBC Radio Network.22

(4) A group portrait of the commission taken in February 1972 on the occasion of its first public hearing in the old Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C.

FINAL DELIBERATIONS

By late fall 1972, the commission began to take stock of all it had learned from the hearings, the expert testimonies, the position papers, and the survey, as well as from formal and informal discussions with stakeholders around the country. It convened once again for closed-door meetings in Sarasota, Florida, January 8-10, 1973, to begin finalizing its recommendations to the President. Although nothing was made public about the deliberations, Bland was quoted in the Sarasota Journal at the time as saying, “Programs must be developed to convince the public that fire is a real threat.” He also said that he thought that in the future the “real professionals in the fire service would be the fire preventers.”23

By March 1973, the commission was reaching the end of its mission when Bland consented to an interview that laid out some of the salient points that were about to be communicated formally to the President in several weeks in its report America Burning. The major thrust of the report, in Bland’s words, was that there be a federal focus on fire in all phases. Bland cautioned that fire is a “local problem, a local responsibility” but that the magnitude of the problem was so severe that the federal government could serve as a “clearinghouse, a central source of information.”24 Foreshadowing many of the 90 recommendations about to be set forth in the America Burning report, Bland spoke of the need for greater fire prevention and public education efforts, more research, more built-in fire safety measures, data collection, training, assistance to local fire departments through grants, and the creation of a National Fire Data Center and a National Fire Academy.24 Several weeks after this interview, the commission delivered its final report to the President and scheduled a final hearing for June 1973 to gather feedback on its recommendations from the fire community.

CONGRESS TAKES ACTION

Congressional hearings began later that summer that eventually led to the passage of the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974, which implemented many of the commission’s recommendations, including the establishment of the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration (NFPCA) [later renamed the United States Fire Administration (USFA)]. Forty years after the commission began its journey, we can look back with thanks on its labor and legacy. To learn more about the early work of the NFPCA, visit the USFA History Station at http://www.lrc.fema.gov/usfahistory.html. Information about the commission is at http://fire.omeka.net/exhibits/show/america-burning/america-burning.

Endnotes

1. Mavis Mann Reeves, The Federal role in the federal system: the dynamics of growth: the Federal role in local fire protection. (Washington, D.C.: Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, 1980), 48.

2. Harvey G. Ryland, Accomplishments associated with the recommendations presented in America Burning (Washington, D.C.: Wilkins Systems, Inc., 1988), 23.

3.”Nixon names 18 members of fire commission,” Fire Engineering, January 1971, 38.

4.”R.E. Bland heads fire commission,” Fire Engineering, October 1971, 43.

5. “Chairman outlines fire commission areas of interest,” Fire Engineering, December 1971, 27.

6. President’s National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control, America Burning; report (Washington, D.C.: The Commission, 1973), 156.

a. The original estimates of fire losses from the America Burning report were almost certainly too high; while it may be impossible to ever know for sure what the correct figures were for that era, there is no doubt that they were still considerable. The earliest available statistics from the National Fire Protection Association Web site date from 1977 and show that there were some 7,395 fatalities; 31,190 civilian injuries; and 3,264,000 fires causing $16.6 billion in damages (2009 dollars).
b. As Chairman Bland is quoted in the Mavis Reeves book, cited above (see page 48): “Information was not available, or sources disagreed on it. As chairman, I asked Baron Whitaker, president of Underwriters Lab; John Jablonski; and one other to provide the Commission with certain information. They couldn’t find reliable information. They couldn’t find a base line (the number of deaths, etc.) against which to base improvements. We needed data.”

7. Nevada Daily Mail, “Fire is leading killer in American homes,” in Fire Files Digital Library, Item #249, http://fire.omeka.net/items/show/249 (accessed 14 Feb. 2011).

8. Chicago Tribune, “Panel hits high-rise fire peril,” 1 Apr. 1972, sec W-A15.

9. Los Angeles Times, “Need for safety standards in mobile homes stressed,” 28 June 1972, sec. A3.

10. Leslie E. Robertson and Edwin H. Gaylord, Tall building criteria and loading (New York, N.Y.: American Society of Civil Engineers, 1980), 349.

11. Charleston News and Courier, “Skyscraper fire safety codes under scrutiny,” in Fire Files Digital Library, Item #254, http://fire.omeka.net/items/show/254 (accessed 14 Feb. 2011).

12. Butterfield, Alexander P., “Designation of Presidential Representatives,” in Fire Files Digital Library, Item #280, http://fire.omeka.net/items/show/280 (accessed 11 Feb. 2011).

13. President’s National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control, Progress report (Washington, DC: The Commission, 1972), 6.

a. The Commission set for itself three general priorities for study: 1) Fire prevention, (2) Fire detection, and (3) Fire suppression. To read an interesting account of their thinking in this matter, see: Richard Bland, “Remarks of Chairman Richard E. Bland, National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control at Banquet of the Symposium on Products of Combustion of (plastics) building materials, March 26, 1973,” in Fire Files Digital Library, Item #292, http://fire.omeka.net/items/show/292 (accessed 15 Feb. 2011).

14. National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control, “Survey Questionnaire – National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control,” in Fire Files Digital Library, Item #86, http://fire.omeka.net/items/show/86 (accessed 9 Feb. 2011).

15. “U.S. involvement urged at Commission hearing,” Fire Engineering, April 1972, 66-67.

16. Richard Bland, “Assorted memos concerning the Commission’s Progress Report of March 1972,” in Fire Files Digital Library, Item #281, http://fire.omeka.net/items/show/281 (accessed 14 Feb. 2011).

17. Richard Sylvia, “Grading schedule criticized at Fire Commission hearings,” Fire Engineering, November 1972, 55-57.

18. “2 fatal fires show need for codes, says National Commission chairman,” Fire Engineering, January 1973, 96.

19. Bowling Green Daily News, “Nursing home fire: atrocious safety conditions are cited,” in Fire Files Digital Library, Item #250, http://fire.omeka.net/items/show/250 (accessed 14 Feb. 2011).

20. Milwaukee Journal, “Fire probes begin; toll climbs to ten,” in Fire Files Digital Library, Item #252, http://fire.omeka.net/items/show/252 (accessed 11 Feb. 2011).

21. The Southeast Missourian, “Springfield nursing home fire worst disaster in history,” in Fire Files Digital Library, Item #255, http://fire.omeka.net/items/show/255 (accessed 11 Feb. 2011).

22. Richard Bland, “Radio transcript of Chairman Bland radio address concerning loss of 15 lives at the Geiger Nursing Home, Pennsylvania,” in Fire Files Digital Library, Item #285, http://fire.omeka.net/items/show/285 (accessed 11 Feb. 2011).

23. Sarasota Journal, “Fire problems pointed out,” in Fire Files Digital Library, Item #259, http://fire.omeka.net/items/show/259 (accessed 11 Feb. 2011).

24. James Casey, “Head of National Commission talks about report to Nixon,” Fire Engineering, April 1973, 51-53.

ED METZ is the head librarian at the U.S. Fire Administration Library in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He has an M.S. degree in library and information science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an M.A. degree in German literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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