Image via Today.com
Over the weekend, we were faced once again with another fire tragedy. A high rise condominium in Honolulu, Hawaii caught fire resulting in the death of three individuals and four serious injuries, including one firefighter. Our hearts and prayers go out to the families of the victims and and to the fire service as they continue to deal with the physiological impact that accompanies any fire tragedy.
Once again, we are all asking how this can happen in today’s modern times. I am convinced this is yet another example of how we have become complacent about the threat of fire. We have recognized the danger posed by unsprinklered high-rise buildings. Countless examples have taught us that over the years. NFPA 1 – Fire Code recognizes this through a requirement that all existing high-rise buildings be provided with sprinkler protection. The technical committees – committees made up of a wide range of interests including the fire service, engineers, installers, manufacturers, insurers, enforcers and owners - involved in writing this provision didn’t arrive at this requirement lightly. They looked at the expectation of protection of the public from fire in an environment where quick evacuation can be difficult.
However, this particular provision, which would require the retrofit of sprinklers, often gets deleted during the local adoption process – as it did in Hawaii. Though the provisions are usually supported by the fire service, the economic interests have been generally successful at convincing policy makers that the economics should outweigh the safety. Policy makers go along with the logic, right up until a tragedy happens. Then they ask, “How can this happen?” Fire safety isn’t free.
The NFPA standards system does a very good job at reviewing, analyzing and arriving at consensus around what technical requirements and at what cost make the most sense to provide an expected level of safety. It has strong public input and review, balanced committees where no single interest can dominate, and considers solid research to better understand the problem and solutions. The result is solid standards that reflect the broadest thinking.
These standards then need to be adopted and enforced to provide the public and first responders with the latest information and technical advances to reduce loss of life and property.
The job of government and policy makers is to create policy that will keep the public safe and meet the public expectation that their government is protecting them with sound policies. Substituting economic and political judgement to remove requirements that have been well thought out and vetted through a visible and public process abandons a time-tested system that works, leading to a breakdown in the safety system and ensuing tragedies. Hawaii is the latest example.