CPSC CHAIRMAN ANN BROWN: THE “BRIGHT LIGHT” OF FEDERAL FIRE PREVENTION
BY PETER G. SPARBER
In one of her first meetings with fire officials, Ann Brown joked, “I never met a microphone I didn`t like. When I open the refrigerator door and the light goes on, I start talking.”
Since her confirmation last year as chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), Brown has done more than just talk. She has shaken the Commission from nearly a decade-and-a-half of sleep.
For sure, Ann Brown likes the bright lights of network television. In her first month as chairman, she appeared on “60 Minutes” and “Good Morning America” twice each and is now one of the few Clinton Administration officials who pretty much receives the coverage she wants, when she wants it.
Yet, look beyond the bright lights and you will see a commission functioning nearly as it was intended. Currently, there is no federal agency doing more to prevent residential fires–a surprising reality considering the bulk of Brown`s consumer activism has been with toy safety.
Consider the facts:
In the late 1980s, the House Appropriations Committee directed the Commission to reduce the number of managers on staff. As a result, the CPSC`s fire safety program, which consisted mainly of managers, was eventually disbanded. Within months of becoming chairman, Brown restored a focus on fire by appointing James Hoebel as chief engineer for fire. Hoebel was an excellent choice. Not only had he directed the fire program before its demise, but he has maintained his credentials as the Commission`s expert on fire protection and still enjoys a solid professional and personal reputation.
For 20 years, the Commission refused to even consider whether there should be flammability standards for upholstered furniture. However, only months after Brown took office, the CPSC published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR)–which means a standard dealing with “small, open-flame ignitions” of upholstered chairs and sofas should be proposed next year.
In addition, the Commission is assessing the effectiveness of the furniture industry`s voluntary efforts to prevent smoldering ignitions of upholstered furniture (which may lead to mandatory standards in this area as well).
The Commission also is looking at mattress and bedding fires to get a better understanding of why–in spite of federal standards–we are not seeing fewer deaths.
According to the Commission, range fires account for nearly 80,000 fires and 190 deaths annually. This past Fall, the Commission asked stove-top manufacturers if there might be a technological solution–some gizmo to detect and correct “preignition” conditions. The industry was asked to deal voluntarily with this challenge. While in the past this type of request might not have been taken seriously, with Ann Brown as chairman it is understood that a voluntary program better come soon and better be good.
Can we do something about fires caused by deteriorating electrical service in older homes? CPSC Director of Electrical Engineering Bill King believes that the answer may be a combination of presale inspections (like the termite inspections required in many jurisdictions) and technology (such as circuit breakers that can detect and deal with arcing and overloads). The project actually began under the previous chairman, Jacqueline Jones-Smith, but is being pursued with renewed enthusiasm under Brown.
In what was the most far-reaching action of its kind in CPSC history, the Commission recalled highly flammable sheer cotton and cotton-blend skirts imported from India.
In 1993, Jones-Smith told Congress that any further work on fire-safe cigarettes should be handled someplace other than the Commission. When Brown took over as chairman, however, she told Capitol Hill that the Commission was indeed the place for further possible work.
At Brown`s direction, the Commission is looking at fires thought to be caused by the improper use of thermoplastics in some electrical consumer products–most notably electric heaters.
The Commission will continue its excellent smoke detector initiative, which has focused not only on increased residential use of detectors but, more important, on making sure detectors remain in working condition.
Can Chairman Ann Brown get the job done in what may be the remaining two years of the Clinton Administration? (A President can appoint/change chairmen at his/her discretion.) Brown certainly has no patience with those who go slow. In any event, her guaranteed six-year term as one of the three commissioners ensures that she will be having at least some sort of impact for five more years.
And help could be on the way. President Clinton recently nominated Thomas Moore to fill the vacancy caused by Jones-Smith`s departure. If Moore is confirmed, and if he sides with Brown on most issues, the two would have the power to routinely outvote conservative Mary Sheila Gall (who has a long record of favoring individual responsibility over regulations).
Whether Ann Brown reigns (as chairman) for two years or her full six-year term, she is certain to save lives and prevent injuries from accidental fires.
PETER G. SPARBER has been in public and government relations for more than 20 years and owns and operates the public affairs consulting firm Sparber and Associates, Inc., in Washington, D.C. He works closely with the National Volunteer Fire Council, the National Association of State Fire Marshals, and many state fire groups. He regularly addresses fire service groups on political and marketing subjects.