Skip navigation
All Places > NFPA Today > Blog > Author: mhousewright

NFPA Today

15 Posts authored by: mhousewright Employee

Recently, utility company PG&E announced they had reached a settlement with victims’ families and survivors of the Ghost Ship fire for an undisclosed amount. According to the plaintiffs, PG&E “knew or should have known” that the electrical connection and usage at the warehouse-turned artist collective were haphazard and unsafe. This comes on the heels of a $32.7 million-dollar settlement reached last month with the city of Oakland alleging roughly the same thing—that the city was aware of unsafe conditions but failed to act. The 2016 fire was a loud wake up call for Oakland, exposing weaknesses in fire safety enforcement that contributed to the deaths of 36 people. However, given that these weaknesses live in other cities too, more tragedies are waiting if others sleep through the alarm.Oakland, CA

 

Safety is created by an ecosystem made up of codes, skilled workers, regular enforcement, and public understanding. It is not a spontaneous condition. Most critically, it requires the government never takes its role in leading these efforts for granted.

 

In Oakland, that system broke down. Reportedly, city officials, even fire personnel, were aware of the warehouse turned artists’ residence and unpermitted concert space. Code violations, like exposed wires and a staircase created from wooden shipping pallets, were glaring. The precise cause of the city’s inertia may be an unknown but the fact that only six fire inspectors served a city of over 430,000 certainly contributed, as did shoddy reporting and chaotic filing systems. These factors left a system where nearly 80 percent of fire safety referrals citywide were left un-inspected in the six years before the fire.

 

Unfortunately, weak enforcement systems are spread well beyond Oakland. In-depth reporting in 2018 from the Mercury News East Bay Times discovered that Bay Area cities routinely missed mandated yearly inspections for hotels, motels, apartment buildings, and schools. Further away, in Las Vegas, a motel, which had gone uninspected for several years despite safety complaints, caught fire killing six people. And in Washington, DC, an alert from police to city inspectors flagging an unsafe, illicit residence slipped through the cracks. A fire months later killed two people, including a 9-year-old boy.

 

To avoid catastrophes big and small, cities should check the health of the ecosystem that protects their citizens. By conducting community risk assessments, safety officials better prioritize their inspection resources. Through integrating systems across multiple departments, building and fire officials can keep a better eye on the city’s built environment and be aware of buildings that are no longer compliant with permits and inspections from years ago. Critically, police, child protective services, and all other officials need formalized protocols for reporting unsafe conditions to fire authorities. This all must operate within a culture that understands acting will save lives.

 

Investment in safety is exponentially better than investment in lawsuits. The $32.7 million dollars to victims’ families and an injured survivor may be the best civil justice can offer, but it will never replace what was lost. Rather than wait for the next tragedy, engaging now in a full safety systems approach will help us get closer to ending these avoidable losses.

 

 

Meghan Housewright is the director of the National Fire Protection Association Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute. The Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute supports policymakers around the globe in protecting people and property from fire and other hazards with best practice recommendations and approaches to develop and sustain a strong fire prevention and protection system.

 

Photo: A view from above Oakland, CA

With the horrific explosion in Beirut, Lebanon on August 4, it is an apt time to revisit the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s (CSB) report on the 2013 ammonium nitrate (AN) detonation that devastated West, Texas, killing 15 people, and injuring 260 others. That report, published in 2016, identified the regulatory gaps and system weaknesses that had allowed a major hazard to go unnoticed for years in the community. Although some progress has been made on AN safety in the U.S. since the accident, as Katherine Lemos, chair of the CSB, noted in a recent statement, many of the weaknesses that were present in 2013 remain in 2020.CSB Report

 

In its report, the CSB pointed to a number of factors that enabled the 2013 incident, both in its occurrence and its severity. From the unsafe storage conditions of the AN to the low hazard awareness of the responding firefighters, 12 of whom lost their lives. Chief among the regulatory gaps and weaknesses identified by the CSB were those left by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health  Administration (OSHA).

 

Those regulations, EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP) and OSHA’s Process Safety Management (PSM) program, did not cover AN in 2013 and they still don’t. The RMP and PSM rules were developed by the agencies to prevent major chemical accidents but they do not include the use of AN within their scope. Facilities using AN, like the West Fertilizer Company (WFC), are therefore not required to perform hazard analyses, employee safety training, emergency planning, and other actions to minimize the risk and consequences of an AN accident. In this context, it bears noting that WFC was familiar with EPA’s RMP regulation as it pertained to anhydrous ammonia, which the company stored on site, and endeavored to comply. The inclusion of AN in the standard would have brought scrutiny to the facility’s sizable AN stockpile and the fire safety hazards that surrounded it.

 

Without PSM, OSHA still has a rule that applies to AN—the Explosives and Blasting Agents regulation. However, since WFC was selling AN as a fertilizer, and not for use as an explosive, they were not aware it applied. In 2016, CSB urged OSHA to not only change the name of the regulation to indicate it applies to any use of AN over a threshold quantity, but also to change the regulation to reference NFPA 400 (2016). This most recent edition of NFPA 400, now 2019, prohibits AN storage in wooden bins, the practice at WFC, and requires stricter fire protection measures. As it is now, [the CSB believes] the OSHA regulation is insufficient to provide for the safe use of the material.

 

At the state level, Texas still lacks a statewide fire code and the state law still makes it difficult for authorities in more rural areas to adopt one. Given that ammonium nitrate is stored and used in rural counties, officials should have more tools at their disposal to ensure those facilities are not a danger to the community.

 

Another tool suggested by the CSB is insurance. Texas requires businesses in a number of different sectors to hold commercial liability insurance policies, from amusement ride operators to electricians and tow truck drivers. However, there’s no such requirements for proprietors selling large quantities of fertilizer. In WFC’s case, their original insurance provider dropped their coverage after making safety recommendations that went unfollowed. While WFC did acquire insurance from another provider, the actual damages from the accident exceeded the coverage by several orders of magnitude. If businesses storing and selling AN were required to hold insurance policies that met certain criteria, communities would have another set of eyes, and another layer of protection, for those facilities.

 

The CSB report made a number of other recommendations as well, from ensuring hazardous materials training for firefighters and encouraging pre-incident planning to implementing industry programs to inform every actor in the supply chain of the hazards associated with AN. But so far, of the 19 recommendations, only seven are closed.

 

beirutIn Beirut, it has been reported that public safety officials tried to no avail to spur the removal of a huge stockpile of AN from the port. In the U.S., we may take for granted that officials would act, and with urgency, if an [ultrahazardous] situation was discovered in our community. However, as the open recommendations show, we are still allowing a hazard to slip through the cracks.

 

For additional information on the subject, watch a recent video with Guy Colonna, an engineering director at NFPA, who discusses ammonium nitrate safety after the Beirut explosion. Guy will also host a webinar for stakeholders in Latin America on Monday, August 24 at 8:00 pm (19:00 Mexico City local time) with Jaime Gutiérrez, new NFPA international development director for Latin America, about the role of ammonium nitrate in the Beirut explosion, and appropriate safety management of the chemical compound.

 

Photo: Beirut, before the explosion.

 

 

A skilled worker who overlooks safety is not a skilled worker.        

                                                                   

In Farmington, Maine, last September, employees at the offices of a local non-profit thought they smelled gas. Having discovered that the recently filled 500-gallon propane tank was empty, the building’s facility manager evacuated the building and called the fire department. Less than 15 minutes later, there was a massive explosion.

 

Investigations found two serious lapses at the center of the accidents. Days earlier, workers driving metal posts into the ground next to the building failed in their due diligence to make sure they would avoid underground fuel lines. Three days after that work on the building’s parking lot, a technician came to fill the office’s empty propane tank and failed to do a code-required “leak test” to verify the propane had been used, not lost through a hole in the tank or piping.

 

Had the workers called the state’s Dig Safe program, as required under the law, they could have avoided puncturing the propane tank’s fuel line. Had the technician performed the leak test, as required by code after a tank has sat empty, the leak could have been discovered before the explosion blasted through the office building, claiming the life of the fire captain on the scene and seriously injuring seven others.

 

A lack of skill may masquerade as simple oversights or carelessness on the job. However, the most fundamental skills for any job is fully appreciating the safety implications of ignoring policies and procedures intended to prevent catastrophes. 

Skilled workers know the code and follow the rules. Laws that require licensures, as the state of Maine requires for propane technicians, and laws that require excavators to call the state Dig Safe program before digging are critical. Just as critical is the need and a shared responsibility to impart through training, and re-training, and continued professional development, the deadly consequences of failing to appreciate that safety is the core skill needed for the job.

 

Learn more about this and similar stories in our 2019 Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem: Year in Review report, now available to download for free on NFPA's Ecosystem webpage. Interested in knowing more about the Ecosystem framework and how you can get involved? Check out our free resources including:

  • A link to the “Ecosystem Watch” page in NFPA Journal
  • An animated video, “About the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem”
  • A Fire & Life Safety PowerPoint deck for presentations
  • A Fire & Life Safety fact sheet

 

Find all of these resources and more by visiting the Ecosystem webpage at www.nfpa.org/ecosystem.

 

With the smell of hydrocarbons still in the air, reassurances that the citizens of Rouen, France could “live and work absolutely normally” just days after over 9,000 pounds of potentially hazardous chemicals burned in a massive fire, fell flat. Françoise Perchepied, a retired housekeeper, captured the community’s anger at the Lubrizol plant incident with “I might move somewhere else,” adding, “Everything is polluted. We just don’t want to be poisoned.” And, while authorities insisted there was nothing to fear, Normandy farmers were still instructed to dump milk and leave fields unharvested.

 

Months earlier, and an ocean away, residents of Deer Park, near Houston, Texas, were also skeptical of official claims that a four-day blaze at the Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) held no lingering effects. After school cancellations and shelter in place orders, one resident, Kristen Crump, told the Associated Press, “I do not fully trust what they say . . . I do believe what is in the air is very harmful and it can have long-term effects such as cancer and things like that down the line. I don’t think it’s worth risking that for me or my kids to stay here and breathe in this stuff.” Ecosystem

   

At the ITC storage facility, the lack of a remotely controlled shut-off valve, and gas detection equipment, greatly contributed to the severity of the event. Workers were left unaware of the release of flammable naptha near an 80,000-gallon storage tank and then powerless to shut-off the flow from that tank once it began to feed a raging fire. In Rouen, the cause of the fire remains under investigation, but investigators have cited insufficient water supply for firefighting, a lack of fire detection equipment for chemicals stored outdoors, and an inadequate gutter system to contain hazardous runoff.

 

Firefighters worked valiantly to battle blazes in both incidents. However, the components of the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem are intended to work in concert, not individually. If the owners of either of those plants had invested in more heavily in fire safety, resulting minor incidents might have prevented a slew of lawsuits and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for environmental damages. More importantly, residents or Deer Park and Rouen would not need to fear the air they breathe.  

 

EcosystemSpeaking of concerts though, Government Responsibility should be playing a bigger role. In Houston, dotted with thousands of above-ground storage tanks, Texas lawmakers know there are gaps in inspections and standards for these tanks, which is particularly concerning given the area’s vulnerability to major storms and flooding. In Rouen, French lawmakers have also identified ways to improve regulations intended to keep communities with major facilities in their midst safe from these disasters. Policymakers should not wait for the next plume of acrid smoke to act to protect communities.   

 

Learn more about these and similar stories in our 2019 Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem: Year in Review report, now available to download for free on NFPA's Ecosystem webpage. There's additional information about the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem and free resources available for download, too, including:

 

  • The new 2019 Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem: Year in Review report
  • A link to the “Ecosystem Watch” page in NFPA Journal
  • An animated video, “About the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem”
  • A Fire & Life Safety PowerPoint deck for presentations
  • A Fire & Life Safety fact sheet

 

You can find all of these resources and more by visiting the Ecosystem webpage at www.nfpa.org/ecosystem.

 

On April 15 last year, nearly all eyes were on Notre-Dame, Paris’ 850-year-old gothic masterpiece that nearly burned to the ground. Slightly less noticed though, a month before, the St. Louis Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, home to rare documents like original documentation of the Louisiana Purchase and the first draft of the U.S. Bill of Rights, went up in flames, nearly taking that history with it. And in Philadelphia, a piece of the city’s own gothic revival past was lost to demolition after a roofer’s torch sparked a fire that consumed the 115-year-old Greater Bible Way Temple.

 

Just like the Parisian firefighters who raced to save religious relics and artwork from Notre-Dame, St. Louis firefighters moved quickly to pull original manuscripts and antiques from the Karpeles. However, without the aid of fire sprinklers, the 100-year-old church that served as the museum’s home could not be saved from millions of dollars of damage, leaving an uncertain future for a cultural institution much valued by the community.   Ecosystem

 

Despite the irreplaceability of the objects they contain, under investment in safety is not uncommon for museums around the world. In 2019, Rio de Janeiro learned the cause of the 2018 Brazil National Museum Fire that ravished the world’s largest collection of Latin and South American natural and cultural history artifacts. The cause, an air conditioner installation that did not meet manufacturer specifications for grounding and circuitry, could grow to a disaster due to paltry spending on fire protection.

 

But, while there are those institutions that have under-invested in fire protection, others embrace it. For instance, Los Angeles’ Getty Center, which houses hundreds of priceless works of art, has invested heavily in the layered fire protection which guards the facility so well that during the nearby Getty wildfire in 2019, the museum campus served as a rest area for fire crews.

 

Investment in safety, one of the eight components in the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem, should be everyone’s priority. From the safety of the public, worker training, and emergency planning to the preservation of our cultural icons, we all must work together to allocate resources to reduce losses from fire and related hazards. If we don’t, uninformed decisions to try to save money can and will lead to disastrous and expensive consequences.

 

Learn more about this and similar stories in our 2019 Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem: Year in Review report, now available to download for free on NFPA's Ecosystem webpage. There's additional information about the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem and free resources available for download, too, including:

  • The new 2019 Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem: Year in Review report
  • A link to the “Ecosystem Watch” page in NFPA Journal
  • An animated video, “About the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem”
  • A Fire & Life Safety PowerPoint deck for presentations
  • A Fire & Life Safety fact sheet

You can find all of these resources and more by visiting the Ecosystem webpage at www.nfpa.org/ecosystem.

 

 

From the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, first responders have dealt a dearth of PPE, thinned ranks from exposed and infected colleagues, and staggering call volumes as they served their communities. Now, as the crisis stretches on, the familiar foe of budget cuts threatens further hardship on our public safety infrasctructure.

 

It hasn’t even been a decade since state and local government budgets were battered by the last economic crisis. A study from the State Fiscal Health Project at Pew found that between 2008 and 2013, states lost $283 billion in tax revenue to the Great Recession. In another Pew study of cities at the heart of the country’s 30 largest metro areas, by fiscal year 2013, operational spending levels had not recovered to 2007 levels. That year, one third of those cities faced a 7-year low in spending on city services. Two-thirds had made cuts to spending on public safety by 2011. first responders

 

In comparison to the Great Recession, the gap states are facing now could be over 2.5 times worse. The Center on Budget and Policy estimates that states will see a revenue shortfall of $650 billion over the next three years. The story is the same for counties and local governments. With businesses closed and scores of residents filing for unemployment benefits, nine in 10 of the 2,400 cities polled by the U.S. Conference of Mayors expect a budget shortfall in 2020. These are budget gaps like $115 million in Louisville, Kentucky, $200 million for Cook County, Illinois, and $100 million for Alexandria, Virginia

 

As the Great Recession wore on, fire departments across the country were asked to “do more with less.” Vacancies went unfilled, training stopped or was significantly reduced, fire prevention programs in the community were halted. Replacement—and maintenance—schedules for apparatus and gear were stretched as far as possible and furloughs became common. Some cities even resorted to brownouts—temporally taking fire companies out of service—to contain costs, leaving Baltimore City’s Fire Chief James S. Clark to remark, “It’s roulette,” as fewer resources led to longer response times.

 

Fire departments are already beginning to feel the sting of budget shortfalls. A survey by the International Association of Fire Chiefs found that already, approximately 1,000 fire department employees, including front-line responders, have been furloughed or laid off. Over the course of this year and the next, that number is expected to grow to at least 30,000.

The CARES Act, which Congress passed at the end of March, added $100 million to the Assistance for Firefighters Grant program, and created a new $150 billion fund for state governments, all to help offset the enormous cost of responding to the pandemic. However, as budget projections reveal, these funds are not nearly enough to fill gap.

 

Whether more assistance will be forthcoming is as of yet up to political discussions. The House has proposed over $800 billion in aid for state and local governments in a recently passed stimulus bill, which the Senate has indicated it is unlikely to move. While political rancor, as much as coronavirus, defines our times, government responsibility still includes meeting the need for safe and effective emergency response, as laid out in the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem. Traditionally, in the U.S., that responsibility falls to local governments. However, in unprecedented times, non-traditional measures may be the only way to actually fulfill the responsibility citizens expect.    

 

Learn more about the components of the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem, including the critical role elected officials play in protecting citizens and first responders. Additional information can be found by visiting the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute webpage.

With the world on high-alert due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to forget that a fire nearly destroyed the iconic Notre-Dame Cathedral just over a year ago. Or that Australia was experiencing catastrophic wildfires a few months ago. Or that 34 people lost their lives last year when their chartered diving boat caught fire in September. Inevitably, the challenges of present day can overtake yesterday’s events.Year in Review

 

However, there is still much to learn from last year’s tragic events. For that reason, the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute released the 2019 Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem Year in Review report. The report, which highlights a number of U.S. and international life safety incidents, looks at the circumstances that led to each tragedy and examines the current, overall health of the global fire and life safety system.

 

With each incident, we’re reminded of the current safety system that repeatedly fails to protect the public and first responders; taken together, they represent a catastrophic failure of the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem, a framework NFPA developed in 2018 that identifies the components that must work together to minimize risk and help prevent loss, injuries, and death from fire, electrical, and other hazards.

 

The examples referenced in the new report point to gaps, cracks, and weaknesses in the Ecosystem that otherwise should protect communities. By examining these incidents, communities can see the breakdowns that led to each calamity and use them as learning opportunities to help address fractures in their own fire and life safety ecosystems to create safer areas to live.

 

The 2019 Year in Review report is now available for download, for free. You can find it along with additional resources and information about the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem, on NFPA’s Ecosystem webpage.

 

As all of us continue to navigate the evolving situation with COVID-19, NFPA remains committed to supporting you with the resources you need to minimize risk and help prevent loss, injuries, and death from fire, electrical, and other hazards. For information on NFPA’s response to the coronavirus, please visit our webpage.

With Friday’s passage of the CARE Act, over $150 billion will soon be available to help states and municipalities with immediate needs related to the coronavirus. Of these needs, one of the most acute is for personal protective equipment (PPE), like N95 masks, and related supplies. In a recent survey of over 231 cities by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, over 91.5% reported not having enough face masks for both first responders and medical workers; 88.2% reported a shortage in other types of PPE for these same personnel; and 92.1% reported a shortage of test kits.

 

As more resources become available, authorities are urged to provide access to all of these supplies to first responders, as well as medical workers. Currently, the U.S. Public Health Service has classified fire service and EMS personnel as Tier 2 or Tier 3 as they prioritize access to testing.

 

Today, NFPA came together with the nation’s leading response organizations to implore that Vice President Pence and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar provide first responders with the same access to PPE and testing, as healthcare workers.

 

Why is this so critical right now? Experience from Bergamo, Italy reveals the role of these workers in disease transmission, and their particular vulnerability to sickness. In an Op-Ed sent to the New England Journal of Medicine, Italian doctors wrote, “We are learning that hospitals might be the main Covid-19 carriers, as they are rapidly populated by infected patients, facilitating transmission to uninfected patients. Patients are transported by our regional system, which also contributes to spreading the disease as its ambulances and personnel rapidly become vectors. Health workers are asymptomatic carriers or sick without surveillance; some might die, including young people, which increases the stress of those on the front line.”

 

For American first responders, that lesson now has a face. On Wednesday, the family of 34-year-old FDNY EMT Christell Cadet reported she is now on a ventilator after contracting the virus and becoming sick. This as the New York Post reports that the city’s emergency medical calls are the busiest since 9/11.

 

Between fires and calls for medical aid, it is the worst time for fire departments to be forced to quarantine personnel, or worse, endanger the health of responders on the job. If communities do not ensure that firefighters, EMS and law enforcement have access to the PPE they need to protect themselves they cannot expect that they will have access to first responders when safety is on the line – as illustrated within the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem.

 

Learn more about how the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute and NFPA are responding to the coronavirus pandemic by visiting www.nfpa.org/coronavirus

 

(Meghan Housewright is Director of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute, which supports policymakers around the globe in protecting people and property from fire and other hazards with best practice recommendations and approaches to develop and sustain a strong fire prevention and protection system.)

 

(Meghan Housewright is Director of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute, which supports policymakers around the globe in protecting people and property from fire and other hazards with best practice recommendations and approaches to develop and sustain a strong fire prevention and protection system.)

 

As doctors across the U.S. face the crush of COVID-19 cases, some are turning to social media and #GetMePPE to deal with the critical shortage of N95 respirator masks, gowns, facial shields, and other personal protective equipment (PPE). Repeated reuse of single use items, meant to protect patients and medical staff alike, is now routine, as is seeking community donations of unused or homemade gear.

 

Add to the doctors, nurses, and other hospital employees who desperately need these supplies: America’s first responders. Firefighters and paramedics are on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, transporting sick patients and responding to calls out in the community. Unsurprisingly, some are becoming infected, or forced into isolation after interacting with those who have tested positive. In Washington, DC, 141 firefighters and paramedics are in self-quarantine after three members of the department tested positive for the virus. Last week, the San Jose Fire Department reported that around 10 percent of the city’s department is self-quarantined, while 13 responders have tested positive. This is happening to departments all over the country.

 

As first responders burn through their PPE supplies to reduce their risk, departments face shortages that will only grow with the pandemic. Action is needed now to help all workers on the front lines stay safe. But in the face of sky-rocketing global demand, what does that action look like?

 

A growing chorus, including the medical establishment, the mayor of New York City, Congressional Democrats, and the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank have called for the federal government to step into the breach. Under the powers of the Defense Production Act (DPA), the government could require U.S. businesses to accept government contracts for needed goods and services and oversee the distribution of that matériel to states and localities based on need, among other measures. While President Trump has signed orders allowing the DPA to be used to address coronavirus, he has not followed through by invoking its authority for specific actions. Instead, the president has argued the country is not yet on a supply precipice and that the voluntary efforts of U.S. industry will be able to meet the demand.

 

U.S. manufacturers, like 3M, are indeed moving swiftly to supply as much of the demand as they can. But as states, localities, and hospitals alike hunt for PPE in a crisis that is not just nationwide, but worldwide, the eruption of inevitable bidding wars have pushed prices well past the point of most public safety agencies. And while some in Congress have proposed more stimulus funding to directly aid the medical effort, that money won’t address the scarcity. The certainty of large government contracts will help manufacturers who can.

 

When the virus made landfall in the U.S., the national strategic stockpile, with 12 million N95 masks on hand (and another 30 million surgical masks), had roughly 1% of the PPE supply the Department of Health and Human Services estimated the crisis could demand: 3.5 billion masks. In the face of such staggering demand, the World Health Organization has called for a 40% increase in the production of PPE and other supplies. As firms consider how they can bring new production on-line, experts note it will likely take three to five months to actually begin production. The sooner they start, the closer we come to ending the shortage.

 

Need today is dependent on existing capacity, most of which occurs overseas. Much of that is in China, which until recently, has prioritized its own epidemic needs. As they gradually pivot toward meeting worldwide demand, cooperation between countries is now essential to workers on the front lines of the virus.

 

In the U.S., every 24 seconds, a fire department responds to a fire. Well before this crisis, every 1.3. seconds, a fire department responded to a call for medical aid. Our nation’s first responders were 24-7 well before this national emergency. Now, just as doctors and nurses still must treat other patients despite an ER full of coronavirus, firefighters will still need to respond, no matter the emergency. The U.S. is fortunate that its responders are such a strong part of the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem. These are the people who make sure a house fire does not become a fatal fire or that a hazardous material spill does not become an environmental catastrophe. These are the same people who cut victims from car wrecks and bring them to the hospital. Their health is critical to the everyday safety of the community.

 

And while first responders may be at capacity now, the coming months could be worse. Land managers and fire officials are keenly aware of the challenge posed by virus-caused attrition to wildfire season. In Los Angeles, the crews that normally clear brush to lower fire risk have been delayed; in Washington state, they’ve been forced to cancel training for new firefighting personnel. All of this while the Western U.S. is under drought conditions from historically low snow and rain.

 

As a nation, we’re failing the first responder who today is responding to patients without proper PPE. If we let this continue into tomorrow, we are most certainly failing ourselves. Given the scale of the crisis, the U.S. needs every tool available pressed into service to meet this towering need.

 

For additional NFPA content and insights, visit www.nfpa.org/coronavirus.

 

As we navigate the evolving situation with COVID-19, we remain committed to supporting you with the resources you need to minimize risk and help prevent loss, injuries, and death from fire, electrical, and other hazards.

Camp Fire

 

With Australia’s devastating wildfires grabbing headlines, it’s a propitious time to educate people—especially elected officials—that while wildfires are inevitable, wildfire disasters need not be.

 

This is the message highlighted by NFPA President Jim Pauley in a recent piece in the UPenn Regulatory Review, a publication of the University of Pennsylvania’s Program on Regulation. The piece acknowledges that the conditions that have produced the recent destructive wildfires, like poor forest health and climate change, will likely continue. However, while politicians fret about the “new normal,” the piece points out that they have had little appetite for enacting the types of changes that will help keep communities safe. Instead, the impetus to fight the fires remains the norm.

 

But fighting the fires isn’t enough. Or at least, relying on fire fighting isn’t a sustainable, or effective, solution to the problem of protecting communities in areas prone to wildfires. Years of research by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the U.S. Forest Service, and others, has revealed that it is the embers falling on wood shake roofs, wooden decks, debris-filled gutters, and encroached vegetation that make homes vulnerable to fire during a wildfire event—not the heat from the forest burning nearby. Standards from NFPA and programs like Firewise USA can help communities mitigate those risks, but only if they’re actually followed.

 

As noted by Mr. Pauley in the piece, there are many towns like Payson, Arizona, high on wildfire risk and home to local leaders that debate stricter code requirements, but who then retreat to making modest changes that do little to lower the overall danger level of the community. Without greater political will to require safer construction (including excluding development from some high risk areas) and to enforce risk reduction practices among existing homeowners, thousands of communities in the U.S. will remain in danger from wildfires.   

 

Few people would entertain the idea of fighting a hurricane or an earthquake. Yet, instead of preparing for wildfires, we fight them. This mentality obscures the reality that people have the most power to protect their homes well before the forest goes up in flames.

 

As we look into a future with more wildfire on our North American landscape, it would be instructive to remember the past. Throughout the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth, entire cities were destroyed in blazes that began in a single home. But, as we learned more about fire prevention, cities mandated stricter standards, and over time, the threat of urban conflagrations became exceedingly rare. We can apply this lesson to communities in wildfire prone areas, but not without leaders willing to force a change in the direction of fire safety.

 

Read the piece in The Regulatory Review.

 

For additional, related information, visit the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute webpage where you can download a free fact sheet that provides guidance to policymakers on how to help keep (their) communities safer from wildfire.  

 

Photo: Burned out homes from California's Camp Fire

Getty Images

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.

fire in building under construction

March was a rough month for fires in buildings under construction, wreaking millions of dollars in damage and undoubtedly causing major headaches for public officials.  Thankfully, no one was killed or seriously hurt in these fires, but their toll can be added to the over 6,310 fires in buildings either under construction, demolition, or major renovation between 2010 and 2014, which caused 9 deaths and $280 million in direct property damage.  Add to that at least $210 million in losses—and 2 fatalities--from construction site fires in 2017 and 2018, and it’s clear that a lot of construction sites have neglected fire safety.

Last month, fires included:

To help prevent these fires from happening, local officials must insist fire safety is a high priority for construction site owners, managers, and workers. To do this, they can take three critical steps:

  • Require the use of NFPA 241 Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition through the fire code.  Make sure your community enforces the most recent one to keep up to date as construction practices change;
  • Follow the standard and make sure your community requires written fire prevention plans as part of the construction permit process; and
  • Talk to your community’s fire officials to go beyond the minimum requirements—consider extra security, a higher trained workforce, and more fire suppression and detection measures.

To raise awareness of this issue and offer steps policymakers should take to reduce risk in their communities, the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute developed this policy brief.  Download it today to learn more. Find additional information and resources on the Policy Institute’s webpage.

Just last week the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute released a report on Wide Variations in State Adoption of the NEC® Reveal Neglect of Electrical Safety. Rather than “neglect” though, perhaps “actively opposing” would be a better way to state it. Or, at least, this might better capture the statements and actions of some in the Kentucky legislature which recently passed a bill to open the gates to removing safety requirements from the state adopted National Electrical Code® (NEC). 
“[There’s] nothing in this bill that’s going to be a detriment to somebody’s safety,” stated Senator Jared Carpenter during a floor debate right after he offered that when a GFCI tripped in the bathroom of a tenant using a curling iron in one of his apartment buildings, he had electricians remove the device to make things “more efficient.” With this bill, rather than ensure the Kentucky Electrical Code protects people from shocks caused by faulty appliances through adhering to the NEC, Senator Carpenter and the other backers of HB 100 in the Kentucky legislature, are opening the door to potentially deadly shortcuts. Advances like GFCIs, which in 2003 the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission found could address nearly half of all home electrocutions in the U.S., are exactly the types of provisions that should remain in the code. (Hear Senator Carpenter address the Kentucky legislature in this short video clip below.)
This is a perfect, and unfortunate, example of politicians’ lack of education on codes leading to decisions with real safety consequences. It’s also examples like these that motivated the Policy Institute to look at state NEC adoption across the U.S. After reviewing the length of time it takes states to adopt the latest version of each NEC update and the practices used to promulgate those adoptions, as well as commissioning surveys and interviews with individuals recently responsible for NEC adoptions, several findings emerged:
  • Observers reported that the adoption process is under heavier political scrutiny, leading to delays and decisions motivated by factors other than safety concerns. In addition, members of promulgating boards worry increasingly about the political influence on such boards and board members.
  • Electrical regulatory boards tend to promote more prompt and consistent adoptions. States without such boards were twice as likely to skip a cycle of the NEC. States with electrical boards adopted each update cycle in about half the time.
  • Prioritizing the NEC is important. States that adopt all construction-related codes at once tend to take twice as long to adopt the latest NEC updates, leaving residents of their states well behind the national standard for safe electrical design, installation, and maintenance.
  • The cost of compliance is often considered in isolation, without any consideration of the benefits of advancing safety, and enabling new technology, and is often the sole driver in code adoption discussions.
The NEC is an important tool to help states advance electrical safety. In addition to educating policymakers on the role of the NEC in promoting electrical safety and on the independent, expert-driven process under which it is developed, the report offers several recommendations to policymakers. High among these recommendations is to steer special interests seeking changes to the NEC to the national-level development process, which is open to anyone to participate rather than making decisions to amend out important safety provisions. The report also encourages states to establish or maintain an electrical board, relying on further expertise for technical matters, and to adopt new updates to the NEC as soon as each one is available, rather than waiting to adopt the NEC with other construction codes.
The legislators in Kentucky should know that 65 percent of U.S. residents trust their policymakers not to remove code requirements, according to an independent survey commissioned by the Policy Institute last summer. They should also know that 81 percent feel policymakers should view keeping fire and electrical safety codes up-to-date as a priority. Data analyzed by NFPA reveals that each year, there are over 61,000 fires of electrical origin that kill roughly 432 people and cause over $2 billion in damage. Policymakers should move to embrace the safety advances available in new versions of the NEC rather than neglecting—or opposing—them. 
To learn more, check out (and download for free) the full Wide Variations in State Adoption of the NEC® Reveal Neglect of Electrical Safety report, a report summary, and an infographic highlighting the making of the 2017 NEC, by visiting www.nfpa.org/policyinstitute. .
policy institute
 
American consumers expect safety to be a high priority for their government leaders. This is something the Policy Institute learned this summer by commissioning an independent telephone survey of over 1000 U.S. residents to learn their views and expectations on adopting fire and electrical safety codes and keeping those codes up-to-date. Overwhelmingly, people expressed the opinion that they trust and expect that government at all levels is keeping these safety codes current with the latest safety advances and is not removing requirements that weaken those codes. To see the results of the survey and related information, check out our new, free downloadable fact sheet.    policy institute
If citizens feel that keeping codes up-to-date is a government responsibility, they likely feel similarly about other parts of the safety ecosystem. The safety ecosystem--all of the functions that support safety, like enforcement of codes, oversight of professionals responsible for the design and construction of the built environment, and raising awareness of risks posed by hazards both natural and man-made— depends on the support and attention of policymakers. None of these functions should be taken for granted.
As we learned from our survey, 86 percent of consumers believe that if they purchased a new home today, it would meet the most up-to-date code. And, 81 percent expect policymakers to view keeping electrical and fire safety codes up-to-date with new information and research a high priority. Decisions to remove safety requirements or delay the adoption of updated codes contravene this public trust.    
These results should be an invitation to learn more about the entire safety ecosystem, as well as the role of organizations like NFPA within it. The resources available to support safety are expert-driven, extensive, and waiting to be put to good use by policymakers.    
For more information about the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute, visit our website: www.nfpa.org/policyinstitute.              

policy institute

I’m excited to tell you about the launch of NFPA’s new Fire and Life Safety Policy Institute. NFPA established the Policy Institute to develop an arms-length view on policy issues that impact fire, life and electrical safety. Policymakers, elected officials and other government leaders play a critical role in the development and maintenance of a strong fire prevention and protection system including using the most current fire and building codes to diligent code enforcement. The Policy Institute will develop proposals and best practice recommendations to guide policymakers toward decision making that best protects citizens. Hear how NFPA president, Jim Pauley, describes the Policy Institute in our short video below:

 

 

Right now, our work includes investigating what U.S. consumers expect of their government when it comes to safety and codes. We’ll also take a look at the electrical code adoption process across the country to understand the pain points and provide suggestions to make the process more efficient. Going forward, we’ll look at the safety infrastructure in the U.S. and abroad and how government decision-making can help or hinder hazard mitigation. Ultimately, our goal is to provide key analysis and ideas that can help governments meet one of their core responsibilities—protecting public safety.  

 

So stay tuned for more Policy Institute announcements, including current and upcoming projects. Download for free our Policy Institute one-page fact sheet to get the overview (hyperlink one-pager). You can find this along with other great information and resources about the Policy Institute by visiting our webpage at www.nfpa.org/policyinstitute.

Filter Blog

By date: By tag: