I’m from the Government and …

BY BOBBY HALTON

Former President Ronald Reagan once said that the most frightening words in the world are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” Using humor helps us to recognize some of life’s absurdities. Oddly, within the government are some agencies that make our job of providing the best possible fire protection difficult. It’s a matter of perspective, and perspective is colored by what you have experienced and what you are responsible for. When assessing multiple options, people always give more credibility to things that confirm their perspectives than to things that do not.

Having a different opinion does not make someone bad or ignorant, nor does it make him someone we should avoid. Quite the opposite is true: The best thing firefighters can do when confronted with someone who does not understand our relentless efforts to create the absolute best possible options in the event of a fire is to engage him; respect his opinion; and disagree in an appropriate, direct, and forthright manner. Firefighters come from the perspective of protecting human life, first in all things. Others have different perspectives: efficiency, cost, space, time, and service delivery.

Recently, the fire service was extremely successful at the International Code Council (ICC) code hearings regarding residential sprinklers. Now firefighters can point to both the ICC and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards that support our position on the need for sprinklers in virtually every building where humans gather, regardless of their purpose for being there. With this bold move, firefighters have stated unequivocally that currently the sprinkler represents the best first option in a fire.

Firefighters also know that relying on one option is the biggest mistake anyone can make. This victory is just the first battle in what will be a long war of getting residential sprinklers adopted as code in every community in America. The possibility is always looming that opponents could have residential sprinklers removed next year.

As firefighters, our concerns are driven by what we see; what we encounter; and the challenges we face when the codes, systems, and measures taken to provide fire protection fall short and a fire violently and dynamically erupts. This is not to say that any of those measures were codes, were inadequate, or were ill thought out. We know that building owners and system designers do a good job of meeting established standards. However, given everything we know about today’s sociotechnical environment, we understand that nothing is perfect. Everything has a weakness and, despite all the best intentions, eventually catastrophes, fires, will occur.

The fire service currently finds itself at odds with a federal agency—the General Services Administration (GSA). The GSA is basically the landlord for the federal government. The federal government is not required to follow local codes, although as a general practice it does. The fire service many times finds itself pitted against the GSA, the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), and the National Home Builders Association. There are several issues about which we find ourselves in deep and serious disagreement. Often, sadly, the primary reason for their opposition to what we are asking for boils down simply to one issue—money. Most find it absolutely unbelievable that our tax dollars (in the case of the GSA) are being used to oppose our efforts at improving public safety.

Following the tragedy of 9/11, several well thought out WTC recommendations were set forth by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) regarding high-rise buildings in particular. These recommendations came from the experiences directly observed during that horrific day. Every firefighter can vividly recall the photographs of the stairwells literally jammed with fleeing residents descending and struggling against that tide of humanity as FDNY firefighters heroically ascended those stairs to extinguish that fire and thereby rescue those trapped above.

Armed with this tragically gained experience, firefighters and others supported the enhancements recently adopted by the ICC for additional stairwells in tall buildings and for the use of photoluminescent exit path markings in the stairwells. The GSA opposed these safety improvements initially; however, it accepted photoluminescent painting and improved fireproofing for steel after receiving negative press. Getting these codes adopted is not the end of the fight; all fire protection is local, and the adoption of codes depends on every one of us being ever vigilant.

For example, the GSA is still fighting a change in the NFPA codes that would widen the stairwells to 56 inches in some new high-rise buildings. A similar recommendation in New York City was initially proposed but was later dropped after the real estate industry raised objections. You see, more stairwell space equals more cost and lost revenue for building owners because of reduced rental space. However, just a few days ago, NIST announced it was now studying evacuations of tall buildings; interestingly, the GSA is paying for that study. The GSA’s opposition was voiced prior to its requesting and paying for this study.

High-rise or tall building safety has several other critical battles raging. We still are short of getting more robust elevators that can provide far greater security and operability during fires. In San Francisco, where firefighters are extremely familiar with high-rise operations, the members’ strong support of the current code regulating built-in air replenishment stations in high-rise buildings is being challenged and is in peril of being dangerously watered down because of BOMA’s influence. Unfortunately, I doubt BOMA will stop if we just tell them “The check’s in the mail.”

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