Old Mutt, New Tricks

BY ALAN BRUNACINI

I recently was invited to attend a two-day national fire prevention conference in Washington, D.C. The get-together was called “Vision 20/20.” The participants were 170 really smart, energetic, dedicated code managers, public educators, accident prevention specialists, and property development planners/consultants. They had an enormous amount of collective professional experience and expertise. The event was designed to discuss, develop, and decide how to connect all our past prevention efforts to the next level of solving the life and property fire loss problem in our country. For me, attending the conference was an unusual experience, because I generally hang out with the firefighting crowd and we mostly talk about the tactical action that must be taken when a fire slips past the prevention/education part of the system. This required me to examine and sort out a lot of my long-standing, very personal firefighting doctrine by getting to listen to how the prevention pros use codes, standards, inspection, and education to keep bad fire events from occurring. Being with the group provided an opportunity for me to participate with and listen to the perspective of the application of the proactive parts of the fire protection system food chain.

FIRE PROTECTION SYSTEM FOOD CHAIN

That food chain has a fairly standard set of stages. The birth of a building starts with an idea of how that structure will be built, how it will be used, and what it will look like. Lots of times, this idea (like a lot of ideas) starts out on the back of a napkin in a diner. The idea then must become a definitive concept that is professionally developed and drawn, generally by an architect who understands the local design and construction requirements. Blueprints must be prepared and submitted to the local building and fire code approval process. The building code describes how the building must be constructed; the fire code describes how the completed occupancy will be used. When the development team has gone through the generally slow and painful code-approval obstacle course, building permits are issued, and the guys with the hard hats and lunch buckets show up and go to work. As construction goes on, inspections are conducted to be certain that what is built looks like the approved plan. When the building is completed and receives the final inspection, a certificate of occupancy (C of O) is issued and allows the move-in.

Now the fire code kicks in, and regular, ongoing maintenance inspections create physical and process safety, and owner/occupant education and training create safe attitudes and behaviors. All of these steps and stages are the standard components of the front end of the regular fire protection system. As long as those proactive (i.e., prevention) components are effective, that place is free of fire. The fire protection food chain, like most, is not perfect; sometimes the regular parts of the overall system fail and require us to resort to the reactive firefighting back end of the system—the community must now depend on manual rescue and fire suppression.

“LAST RESPONDERS”?

Most firefighters regard and approach the occurrence of a fire in the terms of an event that is just beginning—we feel if we have a short notification and response time, we have a fighting (!) chance to effectively intervene. At that moment, we are responding to a fire that is underway, so those feelings and that response are both absolutely appropriate. Based on the urgency of our rescue and fire control mission, we call ourselves “first responders”—and, once the fire starts, we are. But, as I sat through the two days of fire prevention discussions, it occurred to me that we are really “last responders,” simply because manual fire suppression is the last and, many times, desperate stop on the fire protection food chain and a firefighting response is pretty much always the result of a failure in some other part of the system. From a tactical point of view, unless there has been a major remodel, the building will physically look like the construction/fire code that was in place when the building was built.

As usual, while I am listening, my firefighting brain is trying to make sense out of all the education/engineering/enforcement stuff being articulated. This better-balanced brain bombardment of smart information caused a blinding flash in my noodle. Even though I had been taught all the proactive steps in the food chain, I, like most firefighters, had pretty much always skipped those lessons, reversed the food chain, and (almost instinctively) defaulted to the very exciting reactive back end. Simply, I have a 50-year preoccupation with manual fire suppression. I make this self-observation with no regret and no disrespect to the gentle art of firefighting.

The punch line of my lesson is that the structural fire we fight is the result of how that place meets or does not meet the code and the behaviors of the people connected to that fire event. A critical part of an accurate fireground situation evaluation must be a basic understanding and awareness of the construction/use/behavior “specifications” of that occupancy, because the presence/absence of those code-related factors will define and allow the fire that can occur in that place. Probably the most effective rescue and firefighting reality therapy for us would be to quickly start our size-up from the beginning (not the end) of the fire protection system. This would better explain where the fire we are looking at came from. If we added code books to our training and operations manuals, we would better understand that ultimately burning buildings and their occupants live or die according to code and it is very difficult for us to outperform that reality.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINIis a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site www.bshifter.com.

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