BY GLENN P. CORBETT
“What? How many a-larms?” asked Fire Marshal George Earnest as he walked into his office. He made himself a cup of coffee, a necessary evil to get him going so early in the morning.
“A third alarm, a 2:00 a.m. factory fire in the Third Division. Deputy Chief Murray was the chief working the fire,” responded Lieutenant Francis.
“Alright, I want the strike force activated. We’ll meet at 10:30. Have Murray and Fire Chief Leo Harris come in a half an hour early. I want to talk to them.”
“No problem,” said the Lieutenant.
How long had it been, Earnest thought to himself, six and a half years since the last third alarm? Boy, was that a real screw-up! What is going on now?
In his mind, George Earnest began to drift back in time. How long had it been since fires were coming in every day? Fifteen? Twenty years? We’ve really come a long way, he mused. Who would have ever thought that the fire marshal would be running the fire department and the fire chief would be reporting to him!
George pulled a book off his library shelf. The spine was well-worn, the pages creased by hundreds of fingers. He scanned the cover: History of the Utopia Fire Department: 1945-2045. Opening to a familiar chapter heading, he began to read:
“2008: The Coming of a New Era.
“The Fires of February 20-22, 2008 became a watershed event in the history of the Utopia Fire Department. Twenty-three lives were lost, including two firefighters, in a series of four fires, all of them occurring over a single weekend. Unattended cooking, a hair dryer dropped in a dirty clothes bin, candles, and an errant cigarette were the causes, but the results were the same-death to many innocent people. Although the deaths were certainly tragic, the results of the ‘famous four’ fires were dramatic-a cultural change of such proportions that affected not only Utopia itself but many communities across the nation.
“A Blue Ribbon panel consisting of members of the fire department as well as community leaders was convened. Its charge was straightforward-to ensure that such a situation did not occur again. The members came to a quick understanding: the fires were preventable, and the reasons for the fires were predictable. What occurred next was remarkable: a paradigm shift in the history of fire in Utopia and the nation.
“Two major issues were identified-the public’s apathy toward fire and the fire department’s lack of interest in preventing fires. Many citizens in the community possessed a ‘it can’t happen to me’ attitude, while others thought of fire as an act of nature, inevitable and uncontrollable. The fire department itself contributed to this problem, spending very few dollars, and expending even fewer efforts, on fire prevention, even though it was the primary goal of the department’s mission statement.
“The committee recommended several changes to the status quo, and the city responded with money to implement them. A massive, multifaceted public education campaign was launched with a single message-fires were no longer acceptable in Utopia. ‘Have a fire, and join Utopia’s Most Unwanted List’ was the slogan. Billboards showing a man wearing a scarlet red letter ‘F’ went up all over the city.
“Fire prevention officials responded to all fires, armed with megaphones and fire prevention compact discs. ‘Look at that careless, insensitive person!’ they would bark through the loudspeaker. ‘He had a fire! He doesn’t care about you or your community!’ Boos rang out from amongst the crowd.
“The City of Utopia lobbied the state legislature to allow the city to subject individuals responsible for starting fires formerly considered ‘accidental’ to fines and even jail time in some cases. Several test cases went to court, and the city prevailed.
“Immediate changes were also made in the fire department. The formerly unknown fire marshal, Justin Delvecchio, was appointed to lead the Utopia Fire Department. He kept his title of fire marshal. The fire chief would now oversee the reactionary suppression forces and be under the fire marshal. It would be a new way of doing business, a new way of looking at and dealing with fire.
“Delvecchio instituted a new program-‘FIRESTAT.’ Modeled on the successful, ‘COMPSTAT’ program developed by the police agencies, statistics were used to study the fire problem similar to the way that had been used to address the crime problem. Up-to-the-minute NFIRS statistics were collated to profile the fires in several of Utopia’s neighborhoods. The statistics showed a definite pattern in the types of fires in Utopia.
“Marshal Delvecchio convened a meeting of all department officers on June 27, 2008. The day became to be known as ‘Bloody Monday’ by some participants. Delvecchio had a simple message-company officers, battalion chiefs, and deputy chiefs would now be held responsible for the fires occurring in their respective response areas. They would be responsible for going out into their districts, studying the fires, studying the NFIRS data, and developing a plan to address the problem. They would be given resources-fire prevention specialists, fire investigators, and code enforcement personnel would be at their disposal. But, the bottom line was this: They would be held responsible for getting results. If they failed to perform, they would be replaced.
“Most at that meeting were skeptical. A few were belligerent: ‘How dare Marshal Delvecchio order such a crazy concept!’ exclaimed one attendee. Delvecchio was prepared. He had signed resignation forms ready to go. The city would ‘buy out’ the time of any officer who did not want to participate. It was that important.
“No one actually did resign. There was much heated discussion and were many hurt egos, according to those involved. Some were very upset that Delvecchio would appoint a rookie lieutenant, George Earnest, to coordinate the program.
“Earnest set out to ‘sell’ the ‘A New Way of Doing Business’ program. He concentrated his efforts on the younger members of the department, including the academy trainees. He even changed the recruitment posters, emphasizing the fire prevention theme: ‘If you want to ring bells and sound air horns, become a railroad engineer. If you want to prevent fires, join us!’ The entrance exam would still include an agility test, a medical exam, and the like (despite their best efforts, fires would still occur and have to be fought). But, a new public speaking component would be added to determine how successful the candidate would be in selling the fire prevention message.
Other components of the program included the hiring of several fire protection engineers (the prevalent performance-based building codes also necessitated their presence), the hiring of retired teachers to spread the message in the city’s classrooms, and several statisticians to ‘work’ the NFIRS database.
“Within months, Utopia saw a precipitous drop in the number of fires. Major multiple-alarm fires that did occur called the elite ‘strike team’ into action. The team, composed of certain department officers, code specialists, public educators, investigators, fire protection engineers, and statisticians, descended on the fire scene and ‘tore it apart.’ They dissected the fire like a surgeon. They were obligated to prepare a report within a week, complete with recommendations.
“Utopia began to be noticed. Requests came in for presentations to be given at various conferences, including the Fire Department Instructors Conference and the International City Managers Association …. “
A knock came at the door. George put the book back on the shelf. “Come in!” George snapped.
In walked Fire Chief Leo Harris and Deputy Chief Joe Murray. They stood before the fire marshal’s desk. Murray stared at the floor.
“I know what you’re thin ellipse,” Harris began to say.
“What the hell happened, Leo?” George blasted.
“A guy left a hot plate on in the research lab. He went home and forgot about it. A beaker of a combustible liquid caught on fire. It ignited some of the other liquids in the area. The cleaning crew had left the fire door open. It seems as though the sprinkler system was not designed to handle the fire because of an occupancy change. It looks like a comedy of errors ….” Harris was cut off.
“Its no comedy to me, Leo. I can’t believe it. We need to move on this immediately!” yelled George.
“Yes, we will,” said Harris. “The strike team is assembling right now. I assure you, Marshal, this will not happen again. Not while I’m fire chief.”
“That’s the operative term, Leo. Not while you’re fire chief.”
As Harris and Murray left the room, George began to reflect. Harris was a good man. He knew the job to be done. George knew that Harris would ensure a successful conclusion.
Wow, what a career I’ve had! George thought to himself.
GLENN P. CORBETT, P.E., is a professor of fire science at John Jay College in New York City, a technical editor of Fire Engineering, and a captain with the Waldwick (NJ) Fire Department. He previously held the position of administrator of engineering services with the San Antonio (TX) Fire Department. Corbett has a master’s degree in fire protection engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. He authored two chapters on fire prevention/protection in The Fire Chief’s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering Books, 1995). Corbett has been in the fire service since 1978.