By now, we are all aware of the horrible tragedy that occurred in Oakland, CA, where 36 people lost their lives in a horrific fire event at the Ghost Ship warehouse (the Ghost Ship housed assembly uses, residential uses, business use and others), which was hosting a electronic dance music concert at the time of the fire on the evening of December 2. On Saturday afternoon of December 3, a 10 alarm, wind-driven fire tore through 15 buildings and multiple vehicles in Cambridge, MA. All of this on the heels of the devastating wildfire in the beautiful Smoky Mountains National Park.
Fortunately, these large loss fires are not common, but they still exist. And as long as they still exist, our jobs as fire safety professionals are not done, not even close. I have read articles and responses and opinions about the fires, but I have been most impacted by NFPA's President, Jim Pauley's, reaction on the current state of fire safety as a result of this terrible event. In his words:
"They remind us that our work is not done and we should make every effort to see the learnings from all of them are used in our codes and standards, enforcement and public education work just as we have throughout history. This is how we can ensure that we continue to reduce loss and avoid complacency."
Complacency. I never really thought of fire in that way. Maybe because I have work for NFPA and I spend every day, at work and at home, thinking about fire safety. I still see fire as a problem and a risk. I am that person who looks for sprinklers in restaurants, and exits in shopping malls, and blocked fire doors. I worry that I don't have enough smoke alarms in my home and worry there may be too much lint in the dryer or faulty electrical work. But that is not for everyone. Fire risk, for most, is not at the top of the priority list. But it needs to stay a priority. In this crazy world of terrorist threats, cyber-security, global warming and climate change, homegrown acts of violence, all which plaster our news on a daily basis, how can we have time to focus on the fire risk, too? .
I read an article just the other day that I thought related to this issue so well. (Yes, it was from a parenting website, about parenting issues, and not a fire safety website, but the concepts were the same, and so timely.) The article read:
"We focus on the extraordinary risk, rather than the common one. No TV news runs spots on the alarming rate of child drowning. They don’t run bloody footage of the high number of children killed in car crashes. Instead, we pay attention to the extraordinary: the shark attacks, the mass shootings, the risk of terrorism..."
With this focus on extraordinary risk, we can so easily become complacent with the day to day risk. I am fairly confident that those 36 innocent people that lost their lives last weekend didn't think that they would lose their lives to fire. Who does? It is the "it won't happen to me" attitude that can be dangerous, but it is so easy to believe.
Whether they realize it or not, the public relies on codes and standards to protect them. Smoke alarms in our homes, the number of exist in an office building, the storage of hazardous materials in a warehouse, electrical wiring methods and materials, are all regulated by codes and standards. In addition to a building code, a fire code may be one of the first codes and standards that a jurisdiction works with. Every jurisdiction needs and has a fire code.
NFPA 1, Fire Code, is provides jurisdictions and enforcers with a comprehensive resource for fire safety issues addressing occupant life safety, property protection, storage, use and handling of hazardous materials, fire department access and water supply, interior finish and furnishings, conditions in new and existing occupancies, building rehabilitation work, and hazards from outside fires. It is a fire safety 'bible' of sorts. When a fire inspector/code enforcer/AHJ inspects a building, they use a fire code as their resource to check the presence of fire protection systems, to know when inspection, testing and maintenance is required, to verify proper storage of hazardous materials, to ensure egress systems are unobstructed, available, and that the required access to the building is provided should the fire department be on site, among many many many other building issues.
Valuable and proven codes and standards exist, and they will continue to evolve. Let's work together, not in opposition, to make use of these codes and standards (especially the Fire Code!) and to remain vigilant to the risks of fire. Our job isn't done yet.
(Let's not forget holiday safety! Check out last week's post about NFPA 1 provisions for natural cut and artificial Christmas trees.)