Journal Entry 6, February 2011: Fire Prevention, Public Education, and Firefighter Safety…A Perfect Trio

By Ron Kanterman 

At 0200 hours, your company is responding to a report of a fire in a store at 123 Main Street. On the way, dispatch tells you that they received another 911 call reporting smoke in the area. The address of 123 Main Street rings a bell…you did a fire inspection there about a month ago. During your inspection you noticed that the store owner had erected several partition walls without permits. These walls were used to close off a part of the store and make it into an apartment. You took proper code enforcement action at the time of the inspection, but did the owner act after you left? You tell the other members of the company what you found when you did your inspection, and this changes the strategy while en route. Preincident information and code enforcement actions have a dramatic impact on firefighter safety. Fire prevention saves firefighter’s lives!
 
Almost any code enforcement action taken while conducting fire inspections will have a positive impact on firefighter safety. The hardest part of this is getting your fellow firefighters interested in performing these inspections. A firefighter who is interested in doing this work will undoubtedly perform at a higher level than a firefighter who is just “going through the motions” because that’s what’s required of him. Ben Franklin had the right idea. We know he is credited with starting the whole thing in 1736 and he wrote dozens of papers on fire prevention in an effort to keep people safe from fire. Fire departments were formed to protect the people through prevention efforts first. When that failed, the fire company would turn out and take care of business. My article contributors and I believe that when the doors go up and the trucks roll, we’ve had a failure some place in the system. With the current emphasis on firefighter safety and programs like the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s, “Courage to Be Safe–Everyone Goes Home” program, we get to enhance Franklin’s original plan by including “us” in the equation. Hopefully, by examining the links among fire inspections, fire prevention, public education, and firefighter safety, the fire service-at-large will take an interest. We should, because our lives depend on it.
 
The aforementioned “Everyone Goes Home” (EGH) program discusses 16 national firefighter life safety initiatives. (By the way, if this is the first time you’ve heard of EGH, you’re five years late. Ask your chief, your training officer, or anyone else in the firehouse about this program. There are instructors nationwide and a program advocate in every state. It’s a four-hour training block that can help you and the members of your department save your own lives. When in doubt, go to www.everyonegoeshome.com or call the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation in Emmitsburg, Maryland. This article discusses Life Safety Initiatives (LSI) 3, 8, 10, 14 and 15. We’ll note these as we get to them.
 
The Signs of Tragedy
For example, the New Jersey Uniform Fire Code requires buildings that have truss construction (roof and/or floor) to have a truss placard affixed to the structure near the front door. It’s a simple “R” for roof or “F” for floor in a reflective triangle. The link between this fire code requirement and firefighter safety is tragic. All firefighters should know how dangerous truss construction is when exposed to fire conditions. New Jersey’s requirement for truss construction to be placarded, like most other codes, is written in blood. On July 1, 1988, a fire at the Hackensack Ford Dealership claimed the lives of five firefighters when a bowstring truss roof collapsed.
 
On November 29, 1988, in Kansas City (MO), a trailer full of ammonium nitrate exploded as companies pulled up to a construction site, killing six firefighters and tossing their tiller truck across the street like a Tonka toy. Now, every building in Kansas City has a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 704, Standard System for the Identification of the Hazards of Materials for Emergency Response, placard on its door. Fire inspections are critical to our survival.
 
What the American fire service-at-large has failed to realize is that the fire prevention officer, fire inspector, fire marshal, or whatever you call him, where you are has the best knowledge of your response district, barring all others. They are in and out of the buildings on a regular basis and know every nook and cranny from the basement to the attic, the occupancy, and, usually, the goings-on in the building. Most times, the chief doesn’t even know the district that well, let alone line firefighters. (By the way, we’re discussing the fire service-at-large, which means all of us; career, volunteer, industrial, Department of Defense, tribal, etc.) You have to get out and look around. This is about longevity and survivability. Knowledge is power. Knowledge is safety. (See LSI #3-integration of risk management through planning)
 
Let’s look at an example. A requirement of NFPA Standard 25, Maintenance of Water-Based Suppression Systems, deals with the internal inspection of water storage tanks for fire protection water. What could there possibly be to inspect on the inside of a water tank, and how will that help you as a firefighter? The standard requires the internal inspection of a tank to check for pitting, corrosion, spalling, rot, waste materials, debris, aquatic growth, failure of the interior coating (chipping), and other forms of deterioration. Let’s look at one of these conditions that could affect us as firefighters: waste materials and debris. Waste materials and debris can be sucked into the fire pump and, depending on the material, may chip the pump impellers or even seize the pump. Small objects that make it past the fire pump can easily block a sprinkler head or clog a standpipe outlet. Something as small as a pebble could completely obstruct a sprinkler head, rendering it useless.
 
Inoperative sprinklers will have an adverse effect on firefighter safety because putting water on the fire prior to our arrival is a good thing. Firefighting strategies are different in sprinklered buildings as opposed to nonsprinklered buildings. Mopping up with a handline and returning early is a good thing. Having a false sense of security that the building’s sprinkler is working properly is a bad thing. It’s important to note that buildings that have sprinklers are generally built differently than nonsprinklered buildings. These differences involve “trade-offs,” which enable the builder to do less on things like fire ratings of building materials because the structure has sprinklers. Some examples of these trade-offs are increased egress travel distances and enclosing stairwells with a lower fire-rated assembly in sprinklered buildings. The problem with this is if the sprinklers are off for maintenance, etc., firefighters confront a substandard building that is dangerous to the occupants and to us. You could end up in an immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) environment and much farther from an exit than you would be otherwise; you could also have a fire that is going unchecked because the sprinklers are impaired because of debris or other materials clogging the system. At the same time, the fire would be able to extend vertically with no resistance, which could put crews operating above in a precarious position. It’s easy to see that these situations are undesirable, which is the reason the code is written the way it is and why we need to get out and look around. (See LSI#15-advocacy for stronger codes and enforcement)
 

These are just a few of the many examples of how fire inspections and code enforcement have a direct and indirect impact on firefighter safety. The opening scenario about the fire in the store was based on an actual inspection that took place. Looking at photo 1, would you have guessed that this was a person’s home? We didn’t. We thought this was going to be a quick inspection of a storage building. As you can see in photos 2 and 3, this is not your average storage building. This apartment was added illegally and was ordered to be removed.

(1) The structure in question resembles a storage facility…

(2-3) …However, a portion of the structure had been illegally converted into an apartment.

 
The Fact That Someone Else Does It Is No Excuse
Many fire departments are not responsible for fire code enforcement. In those areas, inspections are conducted by another bureau of the fire department, the town, county, or even the state. Just because you are not responsible for the inspections does not mean that you are not responsible to yourself and your brother firefighters to know the buildings in your area. Nothing is stopping you from going in to a local business and asking permission to do a quick walk-through. Most businesses will allow you to take a look around, provided you come at an appropriate time and explain what you want to do. Also, reach out to the inspector responsible for your area. Invite him to the firehouse for coffee or lunch and discuss what you both know. Information sharing is a critical component of safety and survival. Remember that information is valuable only when it is shared and acknowledged. There are no excuses today, especially with e-mail and the Internet at our fingertips. Don’t confine yourself to your jurisdiction. Get critical information to your mutual-aid group as well. Make sure they know about your target hazards and that you know about theirs. We discovered an Internet-based preincident planning program at a reasonable price that can be shared by just giving your mutual-aid companies an access code. Familiarization tours, prefire planning, and building inspections all lend themselves to a safer fireground operation. (See LSI #8-Utilize available technology) 
 
Situational awareness is a big catch phrase in today’s fire service. A scientific definition may be that “situational awareness is a state of knowledge in which environmental elements within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future is considered.” You must do a situational assessment, the process used to obtain that knowledge before you can have situational awareness. Inspections and prefire planning are just parts of your situational assessment–they can be done ahead of time; they can save your life. 
 
 
Why Public Education Is Needed
Our research has shown that the root causes of fire in America are apathy, ignorance, extravagance, and indifference.
 
The apathy part is about people not taking a real interest in the fire problem. Most people are more concerned with their security than fire and believe they will be a victim of a crime before they become a fire victim. They have more locks on the doors than smoke detectors on the ceiling. Ignorance does not mean that people are stupid; they are ignorant to the facts about fire except for the sound bites on the evening news. The lifestyle most people lead is one of extravagance. We live in a “throw-away” society. The mentality is, “I have insurance, which will pay for everything if I lose it.” The shortsightedness of this mentality is what’s really at stake. What about your family photos, mementos, personal items, and the like? Can insurance cover that? And last, people are indifferent to fire. “Someone else will take care of the fire business. I’m too busy to worry about it. The fire department will do that for me.”
 
All of this leads back to public education, and, frankly, we need more of it. Public education is one of those things that we make excuses for: “We have no time for it; let the fire prevention guys do that; it’s not why we’re here.” Except it is why we’re here. (Refer to Dr. Franklin.) Our target audiences have been the young, old, and infirm. We need to start hitting middle-age America too, because this is the audience we’ve been missing, and we need to include ourselves because, in many instances, we don’t practice what we preach. A New Jersey firefighter died in his own home in 2007 doing everything we tell our customers not to do. He went back in, tried to fight the fire, tried to move the burning furniture down the stairs, and trapped himself on the second floor. Above all else, we need to set the example and pass that on to our customers.
 
It’s much better to meet children at school on your hands and knees showing them our equipment and how to crawl low in smoke than to meet them on the third floor of their burning house getting them to remain calm and crawl low in smoke. That’s a failure of our system. We need to meet the moms and dads on whatever level we need to to make them understand that if they need to dial 911, it’s already too late. We need to help them help themselves; in turn, we’ll be helping ourselves as well. There is an entire block of Fire Act Grant money earmarked for fire prevention and public education. This is a win-win situation, as it is tied directly to firefighter safety. (See LSI #10-grant programs should support the implementation of safe practices, and LSI 14-more emphasis on public education) 
 
Welcome to the New Fire Service
 
Firefighters love going to fires. The average person doesn’t understand the thrill of the fight and the good feeling we get when it all goes well. Instant gratification. We are some of the only people in the world that truly enjoy our jobs; most people are trying to figure out how to do less and get out of doing work. All the while, we wish to do more. Fortunately for us and our customers, fires are decreasing, and administrative tasks such as fire inspections and public education are increasing. Welcome to the new fire service. The best fires for the public and the responding firefighters are the ones we don’t go to because we prevented them. It’s hard to measure “prevented fires,” but an aggressive public education and fire inspection program should decrease your run numbers. Better fire prevention practices will inevitably save firefighter lives. It’s pretty simple math: no fires equals no runs, which equals no injuries or firefighter fatalities. The firefighters who don’t respond to a run because they prevented the fire won’t have a heart attack on that run, because the run didn’t happen. Firefighters don’t get killed inside of a building that doesn’t catch fire. Make sense? There are a certain number of line-of-duty deaths that are inevitable; however, we can work on the ones we can prevent.
 
Good fire inspections, code enforcement, and public fire safety education are things that we can easily do and should do. Put together, these things will inevitably have a real positive impact on firefighter safety. These are just a few more easy things we can do to ensure “Everyone Goes Home.” 

Special thanks to Public Fire Safety Officer Robert Yaiser of the Tom’s River (NJ) Fire Prevention Bureau and Firefighter Chris Collier, FDNY Ladder 49 for their invaluable input to this journal entry. Thanks to Chris for the concept.

 

Ron Kanterman is a 35-year veteran of the fire service. He holds a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees and is a career fire chief in southeast Connecticut. He is an advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and serves as chief of operations for the annual Memorial Weekend ceremonies each year in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He lectures on a variety of topics around the country.

 

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