Vickery Hailed at Safety Conference As Next Leader of U.S. Fire Agency
Assurance that Gordon E. Vickery, retired chief of the Seattle Fire Department, will be the next head of the United States Fire Administration was made by Senator Warren G. Magnuson (D-Wash.) at a dinner during the fourth annual conference of the administration at Seattle last October 23-25.
Other highlights of the conference were a charge that tax cuts would endanger the lives of both fire fighters and civilians, doubts voiced about the validity of fire death statistics, and concern raised over the effectiveness of smoke detectors.
The Life Safety Conference of the U.S. Fire Administration, the new name for the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration, featured workshops for volunteer fire Fighters, small cities, medium cities, and metropolitan areas after each presentation at a general session.
Letter from Carter
During a dinner speech, Magnuson said that although President Carter had not yet appointed Vickery, now superintendent of the municipally-owned Seattle City Light, “I think I am safe in saying he’s in.” The senator read a letter from Carter in which the President wrote that “my staff has reviewed his qualifications” and “Mr. Vickery is in the most favorable position.”
Magnuson voiced optimism about the shift of the fire administration from the Department of Commerce to the new Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and pointed out that the fire administration head “won’t have to go through the bureaucratic maze” existing in Commerce when the changeover to FEMA is completed.
The senator came out strong for a permanent site for the National Fire Academy when he said, “I intend to see to it that the National Fire Academy is built and in operation as soon as possible.”
Praises attack on arson
Magnuson called arson “the fastest growing and most expensive crime,” and he praised the Seattle Fire Department’s anti-arson program developed under Chief Frank Hanson, which has seen the arson loss in Seattle decrease from $3.2 million to $2.6 million in 1975 and $1.7 million in 1977.
“Arson incidents have gone down and convictions and arrests have gone up,” Magnuson pointed out in noting that this success costs the taxpayers only about $100,000 a year.
Magnuson added that the big job ahead is to coordinate national efforts with local fire departments through research and training and to provide funding for local investigations.
“Cooperation is what is needed to eliminate this costly crime,” Magnuson declared.
Tax cuts and lives
W. Howard McClennan, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, saw the current tax-cut demands as a threat to the safety of both citizens and fire fighters. McClennan charged that tax cuts “spell danger from death and accident for our people,” and he urged his listeners that if fire fighters “take drastic steps toward strike action, please keep one fact in your mind before you rush to criticize these men: The men who protect your community from fire are working in the most hazardous profession and by and large, the salaries they receive do not reflect at all the dangers they face.”
McClennan reminded the conference that in 1977, the on-the-job fatality rate of fire fighters jumped 11 percent to 79 deaths per 100,000 fire fighters.
He commented, “Perhaps that increase in the death rate can be blamed on lady luck. Perhaps, but it also can be blamed on the fact that in many areas, fewer fire fighters are required to do the same volume of work, or more.”
He added that in 1977, nearly 56 fire fighters out of every 100 were injured sometime during the year.
The accuracy of McClennan’s statistics were questioned by Randy Revelle, a Seattle city councilman, who declared that not all the injuries reflected in the retirement of fire fighters are due to budget cuts. He pointed out that after Seattle Fire Department funds were reduced, the department “experienced more than a 30 percent reduction in injuries.”
“Too many times, accidents brought to our attention are due to stupidity or poor training,” Revelle commented.
He pointed to better preventive medicine, better physical fitness and annual physical exams as things that have improved the injury record.
McClennan’s statistics were also disputed by L. Joe Miller, of the Executive Office of the President, the Office of Science and Technical Policy, in Washington, D.C., who told McClennan, “Your statistics are not credible.”
Miller pointed out that men in other occupations receive injuries which are never statistically reported and referred to crippled cowboys whose injuries have never been recorded and who are still working. He also noted the fire service statistics include service-connected diseases and heart conditions, and he said that in no other occupation is this done.
Another view of the injury record was presented by Gus Welter, of Bloomington, Minn., representing the National Volunteer Council, who said that in an insurance fund that covered 585 fire departments, of which five were paid, the paid personnel made up about 1.5 percent of the personnel but accounted for 12 percent of the claims and 15 percent of the dollars paid. Welter also cited the record of longer disability days in one part-paid department.
McClennan objected vigorously to the criticism of his statistics and declared that when binding arbitration is obtained, then fire fighters will give up the right to strike.
Fire deaths questioned
Philip Favro, California state fire marshal, told the conference he wanted to know who was dying and where so that an answer can be obtained to what he called the real question: “How many deaths can we realistically expect to prevent?” He questioned the inclusion of airliner crash deaths, murders, suicides and other deaths in which fire was secondary to the primary cause of death.
“We can never frighten people into being fire safe,” Favro commented and in noting that most people die in residences, he recommended that “our strategy must be to … attack the enemy where he is most vulnerable—in the home.”
In evaluating the relationships of fire deaths to accidental deaths and others, Favro pointed out that there are three and a half times more poison deaths than fire deaths in the nation. He added there are four times as many murders as fire deaths in California.
Favro told the conference that 95 percent of those who die in fires die before the apparatus responds and therefore these deaths must be prevented in other ways than by fire fighting.
In answering Favro’s question of who dies in fires, David Floyd, of the New York Fire Department, president of the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters, said “the black male is the endangered species” because he provides the greatest single category of fire deaths. Floyd added that the number of deaths of black males “has definitely hurt recruitment” to the fire service. The speaker added that funds should be obtained to find out why so many black males die in fires.
In later questioning, Floyd conceded that in referring to black males, he was also referring to non-white males because that is the way statistics list them.
“I think we have some head-scratching to do on detectors,” said Frederic Clarke, director of the Center for Fire Research of at the National Bureau of Standards, because the people who are buying smoke detectors “may not be the ones we most need to reach.” He declared that “finding another way” to reduce fire losses has been “a major thrust” in the NBS, and he added that cutting out smoking was not an appealing solution.
Richard Strother, USFA associate administrator in charge of the Public Education Office, stated that “smoke detectors are the key to early warning,” but he disclosed that a California study showed that a high percentage of detectors are improperly located and many were poorly maintained.
Title IX of the Older Americans Act provides funds for hiring elderly persons to do public fire safety education work, Strother reminded his audience and he said that public education had saved one home in the recent Los Angeles brush fires.
“If you focus on each problem one at a time, loss reductions can be achieved, and they can he major,” Strother asserted.
Referring to the 6600 fire deaths in homes annually, Joseph Clark, USFA associate administrator heading the National Fire Safety and Research Office, said that modern fire protection systems can cut these losses by as much as 90 percent. Clark also said an effort was being made to determine why fire deaths are rising despite the increased use of detectors in homes. Clark commented that he felt small sprinkler heads can put out fires with small quantities of water and make homes safer from fire.
Three life protectors
Early warning, a means of escape and sprinkler systems were viewed as the ways to improve life safety in buildings by Chief James H. Shern of Pasadena, president of the IAFC. Noting that exit deficiencies have been a contributing cause of deaths over the years in major fires, and that the hue and cry for reform eventually dies, Shern declared, “It is happening here and now I see no hope for the future.” He stressed the need for an alarm system to give people time to get out of a building, and he urged either sprinkler systems or something more sophisticated to control fire in its early stages.
As for sprinkler systems, Shern commented, “This is what we were trying to do in 1873 and it is what we are trying to do in 1978.”
Turning to what he termed the heart of the safety program, life loss in one and two-family dwellings, Shern urged detection systems and deplored the excuse, “I cannot afford it,” in reference to early warning systems and home sprinkler systems, which he said anyone can install.
Toxic gas study results
The toxic gas dangers fire fighters encounter while fighting run-of-the-mill fires were defined by Fire Commissioner George Paul of Boston. Fireground measurements of toxic gas concentrations were made during a study in which the Boston Fire Department, Harvard School of Public Health and the NFPCA participated.
Paul reported that carbon monoxide was detected in all but one of 110 fires and that in 16 fires, it exceeded the safe threshold exposure limit (STEL) of 400 ppm. In 16 fires, the carbon monoxide concentration exceeded the STEL and in one of the fires, the concentration was 4800 ppm, the commissioner reported. Other toxic gases detected during the Boston study were hydrogen chloride, nitrogen dioxide, hydrogen cyanide, acrolein, carbon dioxide and benzine.
As a result of this study, the Boston Fire Department converted to pressure-demand self-contained breathing apparatus. Furthermore, Paul issued an order on October 17,1977 making the use of breathing apparatus mandatory for all fire fighters entering fire buildings. The result, Paul reported, was an 80 percent reduction in smoke inhalation injuries to Boston fire fighters. The commissioner voiced the opinion that the reduction could be increased to 90 percent.
Must become political
In a summation talk on the conference presentations, Chief William McCrossen of New Orleans warned that “we have to move into the political arena” to improve fire safety. He stressed that progress in reducing life loss from fire involves getting codes adopted and that means political action.
“If you get an ordinance passed only for new homes, at least you’ve got your foot in the door,” McCrossen commented.
The New Orleans chief, who will be host to the U.S. Fire Administration’s fifth annual conference next fall, cited delayed alarms as a major cause of life losses and viewed detectors as the means of reducing this problem.
“It has been said we are a tongue-tied, muscle-bound giant. I don’t believe that,” McCrosson declared and he added that the fire service now has “the confidence it didn’t have before.”
Home sprinkler systems
Two means of improving life safety in residences, automatic detection systems and automatic sprinkler systems, were discussed by Chester Schirmer, president of Schirmer Engineering Corporation, Niles, Ill., and Rolf Jensen, president of Rolf Jensen and Associates, Inc., Deerfield, Ill. Schirmer spoke of an automatic remote residential alarm system that has been available for years. He said the system had detectors that radio an alarm to a control panel. This panel has a microprocessor with a digital dialer to phone the alarm to a fire department or a central monitoring station.
Schirmer told of a survey made by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab for the NFPCA that covered 117 fires and 171 fatalities. He said that this survey indicated that detectors could have saved 122 lives, sprinklers could have saved 143 and a remote alarm system might have saved 131. He cautioned that these figures were based on the assumption that the systems would have been properly installed and maintained and that the occupants reacted properly. With the use of remote alarm systems, Schirmer said, it would be expected that the fire department would arrive 20 to 25 minutes sooner.
Although sprinklers can cut fire losses in half, 50 percent of the potential users will not accept them, Jensen told the conference. Of those who refuse to accept sprinklers, 30 percent see no fire threat, 10 percent dislike the appearance of sprinklers and 10 percent fear accidental discharge.
Among those who favor sprinklers, 30 percent would accept them only if there were no net cost in home construction and 9 percent would pay no more than 20 cents a square foot. Jensen pointed out that for a new house of 2000 square feet, the cost would be about $1000 to install a sprinkler system complying with NFPA Standard 13-D. He contrasted the 25-gpm water flow and the 250-gallon water storage requirements of NFPA 13D with Factory Mutual’s sprinkler experiments that indicate much lower water flow is necessary in residences. He said the Factory Mutual found that a 0.04 density was acceptable instead of the 0.1 density required by NFPA 13D. However, he said that additional experiments need to be done with sprinkler systems in well-ventilated rooms.
Greater dollar loss causes
According to statistics, incendiary and suspicious fires are causing the greatest single amount of dollar loss in this country, said Philip Schaenman, USFA associate administrator in charge of the National Fire Data Center. He also said that smoke is the leading cause of fire deaths and cooking is the second, according to data received from Ohio and California.
Schaenman reported that 22 states are now in the USFA national fire data reporting system, which in turn now covers 5000 fire departments. The estimated number of fire deaths in the nation rose by 300 in each of the last two years and, Schaenman commented, “We think that probably it is getting worse.”
When asked by a member of the audience how much validity there was to the fire data, Schaenman responded, “We don’t know.”
Fire academy activities
Reporting on the activities of the National Fire Academy, which he heads, Superintendent David M. McCormack sought to allay the fears of state fire training directors that the academy is intruding into their training areas by saying, “We don’t intend to go around the country with federal extension programs.”
He emphasized that the academy will concentrate on the train-the-trainer objective in developing and presenting courses, which will be handed to the state training agencies and local fire departments for modification to meet their needs. He viewed it as important for the academy to support the existing fire training and education systems.
McCormack said that the national academy will have 17 courses ready for delivery in 1979 and he expected the attendance to reach 3500. He predicted that a company inspection procedures course will be ready late next year or early in 1980.
A description of how people react in fires was given by Dr. John Bryan, head of the fire protection curriculum at the University of Maryland. Referring to a survey in which he participated that involved questioning persons exposed to severe fire situations, it was determined that 41.5 percent were no farther than 10 feet from the fire when they became aware of it and that as their first action, 15 percent notified others of the fire, 10.1 percent searched for the fire and 9 percent called the fire department. More men than women searched for the fire and got a fire extinguisher. On the other hand, more women than men, 11.4 percent to 6.1 percent, called the fire department and more women left the building or got their family out.
Among those who reentered the fire building, 22.2 percent did so to fight the fire, 17.2 percent to get property, 11 percent to check on the fire progress, and 8 percent to notify others. Bryan said that 584 people were involved in the survey.
If you fail to teach people how to save lives, declared Trudy Daly, fire education director of the Hartford Insurance Group in Hartford, Conn., “you have only half a fire program.
“When the fire starts, you have already failed—at least partially,” she declared.
Ms. Daly cited the campaign of the Los Angeles County Fire Department which reduced the number of juvenile fire setters from 170 in 1972 to only 10 in 1977.
She also pointed to the program of the San Francisco Fire Department under Chief Andrew Casper which involved media outreach, post-fire interviews, school fire prevention programs and home inspections. Starting with fiscal 1975-1976 to fiscal year 1977-1978, structural fires decreased 22 percent, major fire alarms dropped 37 percent, false alarms were off 17 percent and fire deaths decreased 34 percent.
Ms. Daly said the reasons for fire safety education campaign failures were that the campaign lacked objectives, the possibility that the fire prevention program really wasn’t desired, the program which seemed good on paper got only lip service, and the chief may not have supported it.