The Fire Officer’s Guide to the Tough Community Questions, Part 3

Photo by Tony Greco.

By Mark Wallace

Elected officials, key stakeholders and/or the media often ask very tough questions on proposals or operational practices that put fire officials on the defensive. They expect us to have a logical and compelling explanation. These tough questions will likely be asked following a fatal fire in your community, and it will go something like this:

“We have invested a lot of resources in every budget and have focused on fire prevention and life safety for many years. Still, we just had a fatal fire in our community. What do you need to do to eliminate fire fatalities in our community?”

Likely, the elected officials, media members, and concerned citizens will want to know specifics about the most recent fatal fire in your community. You may not be in a position at that time to provide the answers they want during an open session; the investigation into the facts and circumstances of the fire may still be ongoing. This is a time when it may be appropriate to provide a confidential briefing to your elected officials. The rules for executive sessions in your community may be a factor in your ability to provide such a briefing to your elected officials, so you must understand the rules thoroughly or obtain guidance from your board’s attorney. If it appears that the incident could be criminal in nature, you may need to put off providing many of the details until a later date.

Executive sessions may allow you to provide confidential information if your executive session rules allow for such a briefing AND the information you provide in such a briefing is required to remain confidential and undisclosed. This is, in some cases, easier said than done. Some of the available information may be available for the briefing, while other information should be withheld so as to not compromise the investigation. Be mindful of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and always consider the family and friends as information is released. Well-meaning elected and other officials may have a good intent, but allow unwanted information to slip out. This could result in a wide variety of problems as the investigation of the incident proceeds.

RELATED: The Fire Officer’s Guide to the Tough Community Questions, Part 1The Fire Officer’s Guide to the Tough Community Questions, Part 2The Community “Fingerprint”

Generally, we can divide the main question (i.e., Why do people still die in fires?) into two categories: Accidental deaths or homicidal deaths. Fatalities can also be divided into categories of unintentional or intentional fatalities. The intentional fatalities can generally be the result of a murder covered up by a fire, a suicide by fire, or a fire designed to be the weapon for a murder. These incidents are beyond our ability to prevent.

It’s the accidental fire fatalities that we may be able to reduce in number. Certainly, if fires are prevented, fire fatalities won’t occur. Realistically, we can reduce them, but we will never completely eliminate the occurrence of unwanted fires in our communities. More than 80 percent of fire fatalities in the United States occur in single-family homes. This statistic will change slightly in each jurisdiction, but the national statistic is less important than your local data. Success in the prevention of fire fatalities in your community will likely be data-driven. So, it is critical to know and provide your data when being asked the tough questions to being addressing the issue.

With few exceptions, if people know about a fire as soon as it starts, they will likely be able to escape and avoid dying in their burning home. So, if the fire can’t be prevented, the next critical step to preventing another fire fatality is for the person in the home to be notified of the fire as soon as it starts. This requires automatic fire detection. Commercial fire detection systems offer several types of operating systems. But in the home, we typically choose to detect the generation of smoke or heat. Smoke detection choices are basically ionization or photoelectric detectors coupled with an alarm that sounds when a sufficient amount of smoke enters the device’s detection chamber. This is old, basic news for fire service personnel, but it is not necessarily new for those asking the tough questions. Heat detectors are sometimes used in spaces such as an attached garage in a home or in areas where flash fires may occur that involve a rapid heat buildup soon after they ignite.

Once detected, the alarm must immediately sound and be sufficient to notify the occupants of the buildings effectively, even if the occupants are asleep. Recent studies address the sufficiency of the sound to wake children and others while they are sound asleep. Other options of alarm devices include shakers and light strobes as backup indicators that an alarm has been activated.

Statistics indicate that only a small percentage of homes (30 to 40 percent in many states) contain properly operating smoke detector/alarm devices. Watch the news media and pay attention to fire fatality stories, and you will likely hear that there was no operating smoke alarm in the residences where the fatalities occurred. In March, seven children in Brooklyn, New York, died in a fire started by a hot plate, and the news report indicated that there were no fire alarms in the home. We will seldom hear of fire fatalities in a single-family residence that had an operating fire alarm system. Why? The occupants were quickly notified of the fire and escaped in time.

What if you could put an effective fire alarm in every residence in your community? How would that impact fire fatalities? Fire alarms are now available (at a reasonable cost) that have combination smoke and carbon monoxide detectors systems with 10-year batteries. The homes that are best protected will have ionization and photoelectric smoke detectors combined with carbon monoxide detectors properly installed, tested monthly, and standing at the ready to detect an unwanted fire.

Every residence in your community should be equipped with a properly operating fire alarm. The tough part of this question is how to make that happen. There will be a direct relationship to the percentage of homes that feature a properly operating fire alarm system and the number of fire fatalities in your community.   


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 ( He wrote the planning chapter in the 7th edition Fire Chief’s Handbook, which was released in fall 2014.   

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