By Mark Wallace
Elected officials, key stakeholders, and/or the media often ask tough questions that put fire officials on the defensive regarding proposals or operational practices. They expect us to have a logical and compelling explanation.
Communities often spend 20 to 25 percent of their total revenues on their fire department. With few exceptions, fire department mission statements include something about preventing fires. Still, serious and sometimes deadly fires occur. After all these years of constant effort and the expenditure of large portions of the department’s budget on fire prevention, why are we still having fires and why aren’t our fire prevention efforts more effective?
The easy (glib) answer that we all have used at one time or other is simply, “Men, women, and children.”
The real answers are far more complex. Fires start because of either an act or an omission. Less often, natural causes such as a lightning strike can start a fire. In other cases, a mechanical breakdown may be the predicating factor that results in a fire starting. In the vast majority of cases, however, we know that the “act” is a situation where a fuel source is combined with a heat source. The availability of oxygen (O2) is simply not a factor in the ignition of most fires because of the difficulty to create an atmosphere where O2 is not present and a fire can still ignite. The act is bringing the heat and fuel together in the right combination that allows for ignition to occur. The “omission” is failing to keep a heat source sufficiently away from a fuel source that could be ignited by the heat source. Essentially, preventing fires is rather easy; just keep the heat sources away from the fuel sources. However, accomplishing this is far easier to say than do.
Think about daily life. Everything from cooking our food to starting our car requires that we bring together a heat source and a fuel source. To do this safely in each instance requires strict control over the situation so just enough heat is provided to do the work or cook the food as desired, but not so much that ignition occurs. It’s often a fine line between effective use of a heat source on a fuel and having a heat source cause ignition of the fuel source (as with our food).
In most jurisdictions, we find that cooking fires are one of, if not the most, common cause of unwanted fires. We all have a busy lifestyle today, especially in the United States. Multitasking skills are often admired and more often required. People today seldom give their full and undivided attention to their cooking. Interruptions and distractions are common. People are tired and sometimes fall asleep while cooking a late-night meal or snack. The result is that a fire begins while the cooking activity is unattended. We could stop most of these fires if we could get everyone to stay engaged and focus on cooking activities while eliminating distractions.
It’s easy to say, “Been there, done that” since the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has had past campaigns, slogans, and themes directed solely at this issue. Still, we have far too many of these cooking-related fires.
How do we, as fire safety experts, get everyone in our community to do their part to prevent cooking-related fires? By keeping the messages coming through a variety of media sources, but there is no perfect answer. We can sufficiently teach children in school to develop safe fire safe practices and even coerce their parents to act more responsibly while cooking.
In reality, cooking fires will continue. If we can’t prevent them, we must be ready to control them. The first line of defense is a properly operating smoke alarm. However, we hear example after example of fire fatalities occurring in residences that weren’t equipped with a properly operating smoke alarm. Residential sprinklers are a second option. If all residences had properly operating smoke alarm and were protected by an automatic fire sprinkler system, our nation’s fire fatality rate would drop drastically.
This is (or at least should be) old news to everyone in the fire service. We know how effective these two relatively simple and inexpensive systems are, but we still have not been successful enough to have a big impact on unwanted fires occurring. You can and should go through a similar evaluation process with each of your community’s common fire cause factors. You can impact the outcomes in some cases, but many times, you will not be 100-percent successful.
If our fire prevention efforts are properly funded, continued, and effectively applied, we can positively impact—but never achieve—100-percent success at fire prevention within our communities. We have to be prepared to fight our fire prevention failures, and we don’t get to choose when or where in our communities these fires will occur.
If you were hoping for a magic solution or a fire prevention secret, you will be disappointed; there simply isn’t one. The best you can do is know the statistics that indicate why fires start in your jurisdiction and be ready to explain how a fire could have prevented if your men, women, and children kept the heat source away from the fuel source for the fires caused in your community in the past.
Mark Wallace (MPA, EFO, CFO, FIFireE) is the author of Fire Department Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence. He is the former State Fire Marshal of Oregon and a former chief in Colorado and Texas. He currently operates Fireeagle Consulting (www.fireeagleconsulting.com). He wrote the planning chapter in the 7th edition Fire Chief’s Handbook, which was released in fall 2014.