Do We Make a Difference?
Everyone who works in fire prevention sooner or later asks themselves whether or not what they are doing really makes a difference. The effect that emergency responders have on an incident is immediate and obvious – but our efforts are often harder to see. I’d like to share the story of a recent incident in my own jurisdiction.
Early one morning last fall a woman (let’s call her Jane) was awakened from her sleep to the unmistakable sound of a smoke alarm sounding. The sound was faint but she got up and immediately searched her apartment and found no fire or anything else out of the ordinary. Her relief was short lived however when she realized that the sounding alarm was coming from the apartment directly above hers - an apartment that she knew was home for a single mother with three small children. Jane ran upstairs and began pounding on the upstairs apartment door. No response. She began hollering and pounding louder against the locked door. Still no response from inside. Jane grabbed the fire extinguisher from the nearby stairwell landing and used it to pound on the door. Finally, the oldest child came to the door. The family was asleep (all of them) in the single bedroom – and the sounding alarm woke no one. Jane saw the apartment filled with smoke and a fire growing rapidly in a corner of the living room. Jane used the fire extinguisher to put the fire out and then helped the family evacuate before emergency responders could arrive. Thanks to Jane’s quick and heroic actions, three children and their mother are still with us today.
But there is more to this story. This fire occurred in an old apartment complex, well past its prime and at least a decade beyond its anticipated useful life. There are no fire sprinklers. The smoke alarms are battery operated. All the tenants in the building exit through a common exterior stairwell. Fire alarms have neither smoke detectors nor notification in dwelling units. The age of the structure and the accumulating delayed maintenance prevents the complex from attracting tenants other than those in the lowest economic conditions. We all have these buildings in our jurisdictions and we all cringe a bit when we pass them because we know the potential risks that exist there.
The reason that Jane found that fire extinguisher that morning was because the local fire inspector recognized the risks involved and committed to do all that could be done at the complex. Over the last year the inspector convinced property owners and maintenance staff to do things to increase fire safety that cost next to nothing that were well within their meager maintenance budget. Repairs to exiting were made. Unit fire alarms were tested, batteries replaced and new ones installed where needed. Missing fire extinguishers (including the one Jane used) were replaced and others were serviced and made visible again.
Jane is certainly a hero. Her direct actions probably saved lives that morning. But the fire inspector is also a hero. If that inspector had not committed to follow through with all that could be done, Jane would not have had a fire extinguisher to pound on the door, wake the occupants and use on the fire, and the fire alarm in the unit may not have sounded to wake Jane up in the first place. What happened that morning was made possible through the efforts of fire inspectors doing their jobs – the same type of things that most of us do day in and day out often without a second thought. So, the next time we wonder if we are making a difference – think of Jane and the inspectors and know that you are making a difference.
Thank you for what you do and have a great spring!