I attended the Triangle Waist Company 100th anniversary memorial in New York last Friday. As I listened to each speaker, I thought about where we are today in regards to fire safety and what is left to be done.
One hundred years ago, March 25, 1911, 146 people died when the Triangle in lower Manhattan caught fire just before the workers who were mostly young women were about to leave for home. Many of them died jumping from the ninth floor where the fire had started because their bosses had locked the doors to keep them from leaving with scraps of material.
The Triangle Fire became the catalyst for the adoption of a whole host of workplace safety reforms in New York spearheaded in the legislature by Assembly Speaker Alfred E. Smith and Senate President Robert Wagner and shaped by Frances Perkins, who served as the Executive Secretary of the Committee on Safety of the City of New York which developed the worker safety proposals. Most of these changes were obvious reforms like putting sprinklers in factories and requiring that exit doors swing out. Their efforts to improve worker safety after the fire established their reputations as reformers. Smith went on to become Governor of New York and the Democratic Party’s nominee for President in 1928. Wagner became a celebrated member of the United States Senate and champion of labor rights. Perkins became Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor. In fact, Perkins used to say that the day of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was “the day the New Deal began.”
But, March 25, 1911, was not just a crucial day in American labor history. The Triangle Fire created a whole new awareness in America about the horrible human costs of all fires in the United States, and it spurred public education campaigns, code improvements and technical advances to reduce deaths, injuries and property losses from fire that continue to this day.
In 1913, Perkins came to the meeting of the National Fire Protection Association and challenged the Boston based group to carry the lessons learned in the Triangle Fire to the rest of the country. That challenge led directly to the development of an Exits Code to require that adequate means of egress be established for factories and other public buildings. Over subsequent years other codes were developed to improve building materials and require sprinklers in more buildings including apartment buildings and places of public assembly.
Requiring smoke alarms in homes has been a tremendous lifesaving advance. In just the last thirty years we have seen the number of people who die in fires in the United States decline from about 8,000 to around 3,000. In the last decade, all fifty states have continued the tradition of progress begun in 1911 by passing legislation that require self-extinguishing cigarettes. Smoking is the leading cause of fire deaths in America and this simple change in the way cigarettes are manufactured, once fully implemented, will save hundreds of lives every year, many of them children, who would otherwise die in home fires caused by smoking.
But even with all of the progress made in fire safety over the last century, the United States has one of the worst fire death rates in the developed world. New measures will be necessary if we are to continue to reduce deaths and injuries from fire. The next logical step is to put fire sprinklers in all newly constructed one- and two-family homes. The major national code organizations have already made this change in their model codes and California became the first state to pass a law requiring home fire sprinklers in all new homes. If the others states follow that lead, countless lives will be saved.
Pennsylvania joined California in requiring fire sprinklers in new homes effective January of this year. That life-saving move is now being threatened.
HB 377, which is currently before the Senate, prohibits the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry from implementing updated model safety codes calling for fire sprinklers in new homes. Passage of this bill would eliminate the state’s ability to establish a fundamental level of protection for families and firefighters.
One-hundred years after one of the most horrific fires in American history, we need politicians to show the same leadership that people like Smith, Wagner and Perkins showed back then. With sprinklers, we have the technology that could virtually eliminate fire deaths in this country over the next century. Let us hope that we have leaders with the courage to make that happen.