Rio de Janeiro and Nowata County, Oklahoma—worlds away but not that far apart. One a city of over six million people, the other, a rural county of less than ten thousand people northeast of Tulsa. Two places, worlds apart, but ultimately caught in the same net: Under investment in safety and neglect of the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem.
As was reported recently, it was likely a faulty air conditioning unit that sparked the devastating fire in Brazil’s National Museum that destroyed objects “beyond value”—irreplaceable artifacts of thousands of years of Latin American history. But before that spark, the continued neglect of maintenance and lack of investment in any fire safety systems enabled a catastrophe for the people of Brazil.
Nowata County has not yet had its spark but officials there seem to be lying in wait for a rhyming tragedy, though here, the irreplaceables are people, not objects. In March, county Sheriff Terry Sue Barnett made national headlines when she resigned in protest. The county jail, which was under evacuation after elevated carbon monoxide levels sent four people to the hospital, is in such a state of disrepair that Sheriff Barnett felt she could not conscionably obey a judge’s order to return the inmates to the facility. In her resignation letter, which was joined by a number of her colleagues, the sheriff provided a list of dangerous conditions faced by inmates and staff, including that the cause of the CO leak had not yet been identified, the fire alarm system does not work, there are exposed wires throughout the facility and reports of inmates receiving electric shocks in the showers.
Hopefully, Sheriff Barnett stopped a tragedy in its tracks, but the inmates may yet be moved back into the facility despite the fact Nowata County has offered no money to address the glaring life safety risks.
While both fires and acts of defiance like Sheriff Barnett’s attract media attention, the public has few tools to proactively assess how strong fire and safety protections are in their communities and little sustained visibility into where the next accidents might be waiting to happen. NFPA's Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem could be used to fill that gap. The Ecosystem illustrates all of the interdependent components necessary for minimizing safety risks and preventing loss, injuries, and deaths from fire, electrical, and other hazards. This Ecosystem framework could help identify the policies and resources needed to support safety in a community. And this framework could enable policymakers and safety advocates to gauge the performance of their community.
The Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem gives us a tool to exercise foresight. It is now up to all of us to exercise it. For information about the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem, please visit www.nfpa.org/ecosystem.