Kaylee Gaydon and Noah Gaydon (Photo Credit: Channel 2 Action News)
A recent fire in the news triggered a couple of thoughts in my fire-suppression-oriented mind. This fire occurred April 8 in Lumpkin County, Georgia, about 70 miles northeast of Atlanta. According to news reports, the fire was said to have occurred in a mobile home and claimed the lives of two-year-old Noah Gaydon and one-year-old Kaylee Gaydon.
Let me say right up front that this post is in no way to be taken as criticism of the Lumpkin County Fire Department or anyone who responded to this fire, nor is it meant to draw unnecessary attention to the Gaydon family. Similar scenarios to this incident have played out across North America. The fact that it keeps happening over and over is what makes the whole thing so aggravating.
“Crews Took 14 Minutes to Get to Fire that Killed Two Georgia Toddlers,” stated one of the headlines. The story also reported that while a fire station was less than two miles from the mobile home, it took Lumpkin County Fire 14 minutes to get to the home. What contributed to this response time, notes the story, was:
- two firefighters calling out sick that morning and unable to report for duty
- a firefighter at this station covering at another station
- Lumpkin County Fire working another fire in another part of town when the fatal fire occurred
I immediately thought how we suppression folks of all ranks proclaim additional fire stations are needed—or fight to keep current fire stations open—all in the name of ensuring fast response times. We use the same argument to justify purchasing the latest fire trucks with the latest firefighting innovations, all in the name of delivering better fire suppression services to our customers. We tie the need for staffing to the need to arrive quickly to burning homes. Let me be clear: in the non-sprinklered world we have built throughout the past 100-plus years and with many legislators and code-making bodies ignoring the benefits of fire sprinklers in the name of money, all of these points must be made clearly and consistently.
However, we are overly engaged in the wrong argument. Even if there were fully staffed fire stations every three miles housing the best fire engines, we cannot guarantee fast response times. We cannot guarantee rapid fire suppression. We cannot guarantee that we can get there in time to save lives. I am sure the Lumpkin County Fire Department, like so many others, did the best they could with the resources provided to them. But it wasn’t enough for Noah or Kaylee.
We can do better. Note that the 14 minutes reported in the news headline only refers to the time elapsed from the time the Lumpkin County Fire Department was notified of the fire to the time the first unit arrived on scene. It does not account for the elapsed time between the fire igniting to the time it was called in. And it does not account for the elapsed time between the fire department arriving and water hitting the fire. (For more on fire suppression response times, check out my previous post.)
Home fire sprinkles would have likely changed the outcome of this fire. It would not have suppressed the fire when it apparently started on the porch, but could have controlled it as it spread into the home. Fire sprinklers have proven to be a very effective, timely, and reliable form of fire suppression. It is time that we suppression folks start fighting as hard for home fire sprinklers as we do for fire stations, fire trucks, and staffing.
One final thought. Back in the ’80s, I attended a public education workshop. There, a well-known fire service leader, James Dalton, spoke of attempts that year to pass federal legislation requiring sprinklers in all mobile and pre-manufactured homes. That legislation failed, I assume, because of the perceived fear that the costs would end the mobile and pre-manufactured home industry. Ever since then, every time I see a fire death in a mobile or pre-manufactured home, I say to myself, “If that requirement was in place, those people would not have died.” What will we be thinking years from now when we learn someone died from fire in a home built after 2009, when all model building codes started requiring sprinklers?
This post was written by Rick Ennis, fire chief for the City of Cape Girardeau in Missouri and chair of the Missouri Fire Sprinkler Coalition. Check this blog often for future posts from Ennis.