The great anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” Political movements throughout history bear this out.
After the murders on 9-11, Sally Regenhard, mother of FDNY probationary firefighter Christian Regenhard, one of the 343 members felled by the collapse of the towers, began asking questions about why and how this had happened to her son and thousands of others. By November, the inscrutable agencies capable of providing some answers had circled the bureaucratic wagons, leaving Sally, it seemed, without much recourse.
There were a few hardy souls outside “the system” who, like Sally, dared to ask hard questions. They assured Sally that her questions (Was it the impact of the planes or the fires that ultimately collapsed the towers? Why were the towers constructed as high as they were, and what were the economic tradeoffs for such a height? What was the effect of the fire on the long-span, open floor trusses? What were the conditions of fire protection systems before 9-11? Why was steel evidence being broken down and sold for scrap before it could be analyzed? Why is the New York-New Jersey Port Authority allowed to operate beyond the reach of local code authorities? Why is there no full-scale investigation of the largest fire-induced collapse in world history? and so forth) were legitimate and not just overemotional responses from a grieving mother.
So Sally organized a band of grief-stricken widows and mothers that called itself the “Campaign for Skyscraper Safety,” and set out to break through the secrecy, expose the truth, and force the federal government to take responsibility for future investigative action regarding building failures.
Fortunately for the Campaign, Sally drafted Glenn Corbett, professor of fire science at John Jay College in New York and technical editor of Fire Engineering, for the cause. A professional engineer and one of the brightest lights in this fire service, Corbett gave the Campaign the technical credibility it needed to complement the emotional horsepower it had in abundance. Corbett was fully aware that taking this on would place him at professional risk, as he would have to go head-to-head with monied heavyweights in the engineering community who, for reasons yet to be fully publicized, have thrown themselves with vigor into preserving the status quo.
In the face of the entrenched bureaucrats and their cronies and their obvious tactics to manipulate the system and suppress the truth, Corbett, Regenhard, and the Campaign persevered. That perseverance won them two successful hearings before the House Committee on Science, at which Corbett testified.
The hearings produced two critical results:
First, the investigation into the collapse of the towers was significantly expanded, with the National Institute of Standards and Technology acting as the lead agency. Had this not occurred, the painfully superficial World Trade Center Building Performance Study recently published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency likely would have been the only document from the federal government to analyze the worst building collapse in American history.
Second, Congressman Sherwood Boehlert, House Science Committee chairman, and several other representatives from the Committee, have introduced H.R. 4687, the National Construction Safety Team Act. This legislation would empower the federal government to deploy a technical team of engineers, fire protection specialists, and other experts within 48 hours after a major building disaster to conduct an investigation into the building failure; evaluate technical aspects of evacuation and emergency response systems; and recommend improvements to building codes and engineering practices. The team would have subpoena power over all documents, plans, and so forth required for the investigation, and would operate in much the same manner as the National Transportation Safety Board operates at airline disasters.
In part, my purpose is to congratulate and thank Glenn and Sally for changing the world, and to hold them up as an example that Margaret Mead was right.
The second purpose is to ask a question. Where are you, fire service?
Just as surely as monied interests do not want questionable high-rise construction and fire protection practices exposed, the fire service does not want to engage the issue on the front end. In effect, the American fire service has treated this issue the way it has treated fire prevention for 200 years-as an inconvenience, as something a few of us are forced to do when we’re not doing the fun, dangerous stuff.
Why, I must ask, was Glenn Corbett standing virtually alone at those congressional hearings? Why, when he rose to address our legislators, did he not feel the power of the fire service behind him?
Are we in a state of denial that something as terrible as what happened on 9-11 could happen again? If we believe that, why would we be scrambling to improve our response to terrorism capabilities?
The fire service mentality is all back end, all big red trucks. It’s a mentality that makes another devastatingly large-loss incident not difficult to imagine.
We like to celebrate fire service leadership we see as “progressive.” Progressive? What Sally and Glenn did, that’s progressive. Fighting the fight to improve the built environment that takes firefighters from their families-that’s progressive.
You can study Frank Brannigan from now ’til the cows come home, and you won’t make the buildings you work in any safer.
Why hide from the truth? The American fire service loves fires. American firefighters will die in buildings built for profit. And the bagpipes will continue to sound across America for brothers and sisters whose lives were cut short.
The fire service fighting its cause on the front end of the fire equation? Now that really would be changing the world.