As 2019 and the 2010s draw to a close, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on our accomplishments as a fire protection and life safety community in reducing loss of life from fire and similar emergencies. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on where room for improvement still exists. While people continue to die in fires, we continue to have work to do.
For me, 2019 was punctuated by two occurrences: mass shootings (or more broadly, mass violence) and the fire at Cathedral Notre Dame in Paris. To date, there have been 409 mass shootings with 486 people killed in 2019 in the U.S. (based on the unofficial definition of ‘mass shooting’ being four or more people shot in a single incident). Nine of these incidents occurred at schools or universities. The Code doesn’t regulate buildings to protect occupants from these acts of violence, but mitigating the risk certainly has life safety from fire implications. (I’ve always contended that security and life safety from fire are diametrically opposing forces.)
NFPA has been responsive to the gun violence crisis in this country by facilitating, in 2017 following the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting, the development of NFPA 3000 (PS), Standard for an Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response (ASHER) Program. This provisional standard was developed on an emergency basis under ANSI regulations to respond to the need of communities for a framework for the development of programs to prepare for, respond to, and recover from active shooter and other hostile events. NFPA continued to work this past year to assist its stakeholders by providing training and a roadmap for the implementation of NFPA 3000, and it continues to facilitate the development of NFPA 3000 as a full-fledged, ANSI accredited standard, the issuance of which is scheduled to occur in 2020.
In the Life Safety Code arena, the technical committee responsible for requirements in educational occupancies (K-12 schools) recognized in 2019 the need for practical, cost effective, and most importantly, safe classroom door locking solutions that could be implemented on existing doors without meeting the strict, single-motion lock/latch releasing requirement present in the 2018 edition of NFPA 101. Lacking a code-compliant, cost effective solution, the alternative for many school districts was to purchase and equip classrooms with dangerous barricade devices, and other makeshift arrangements, such as five-gallon plastic buckets containing rope, a hammer, a wooden wedge, and duct tape. To preemptively mitigate the hazards of these unsafe alternatives, NFPA issued a tentative interim amendment to the classroom door locking provisions in the 2018 edition of NFPA 101, and carried the same concepts forward in the draft 2021 edition slated for publication in 2020.
The Cathedral Notre Dame fire last April drove home an important lesson in my mind; I wrote about it in my #101Wednesdays blog shortly following the fire. Although this particular fire resulted in no loss of life, it demonstrated where a fire protection (or life safety) plan relies on human intervention, the plan must accommodate, and compensate, for the very real potential for human error. The need for quality and consistent training can’t be overstated. The Code can only do so much; unless communities and society embrace the concepts it embodies, the words in the book aren’t worth the cost of the paper they’re printed on. Following the Oakland Ghost Ship fire in 2016, I wrote about the need for a new way of thinking – a paradigm shift, of sorts – to prevent such recurring tragedies. I believe one such new way of thinking has been realized by the development of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosytem, a framework that identifies the components that must work together to minimize risk and help prevent loss, injuries, and death from fire, electrical, and other hazards. For the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem to have an impact, it’s up to us to continue to talk about it and educate. This is no easy task and will be an ongoing challenge in 2020 and many years to come.
The past year and decade have seen important advancements in NFPA 101, including: new requirements for carbon monoxide detection; significant changes to health care occupancy requirements to accommodate homelike settings (e.g., community kitchens), particularly in nursing facilities, to enhance patients’ cognitive abilities and dignity (so-called “health care culture change”) – these provisions were incorporated into the 2012 edition, which was subsequently adopted by the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services; and recognition of hazardous materials emergencies and targeted violence events in the 2018 edition.
The area of fire protection and life safety in which I fear significant progress has not been made is home fire deaths. Fire data compiled by NFPA indicates somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,500 to 3,000 people die in home fires in the U.S. each year. These numbers haven’t changed much in the last 20 years, let alone the last decade. NFPA 101 requires all new one- and two-family dwellings to be protected by automatic sprinklers; however, as long as trade organizations continue to successfully advocate against sprinkler legislation, that requirement, and a companion requirement in the International Residential Code, will have no impact. Granted, the vast majority of the population lives in existing housing stock and the installation of sprinklers in all new homes would not have a measurable impact on fire death statistics for decades, most likely. However, the impact would come one day; it’s never going to come at the rate we’re going. The question I ask myself heading into the 2020s, then, is, “Are we doing what’s needed to reduce the burden of fire on society, or are we doing what’s needed to maintain the status quo?” The numbers seem to point towards the latter. I don’t know what it will take to drive the home fire death numbers down appreciably. Maybe it’s sprinklers. Maybe it’s stricter smoke alarm requirements. Maybe it’s something else. I do know that I’m not content with maintaining the status quo; it’s not good enough and it’s not why I got into this business. I would challenge you to think about whether it’s good enough for you as well, and if not, what are we going to do about it.
I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy holiday season. We’ve done a lot of good work together this past year and decade; I’m looking forward to the good work we’ll do together in 2020 and beyond.
Thanks for reading, and as always, stay safe.
Got an idea for a topic for a future #101Wednesdays? Post it in the comments below – I’d love to hear your suggestions!
Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to www.nfpa.org/101 and click on “FREE ACCESS.”
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