AMU Fire & EMS Original Public Safety

The Philadelphia and NYC Fires: How We Can Improve Fire Safety

By Randall Hanifen
Edge Contributor

As the fires that occurred in Philadelphia and New York appeared on news networks in the past week, we cannot help but feel great sadness for the victims, their families, and the firefighters who responded to those events. Each group will never be the same.

As investigations continue, the details of each event will gradually emerge. However, there are a few details we already know:

  • Smoke detectors must be in working order to alert a building’s occupants and give them a chance to escape.
  • Closing doors prevents smoke and fire from traveling.
  • Sprinklers in all occupied buildings can control a fire, prevent a fire from moving into other parts of the building and reduce toxic smoke.

Despite all of today’s modern engineering and fire education, large forces responding in a quick manner are still needed for those times when fire control methods are not effective or not present in a building. One strategy alone cannot prevent fire fatalities. However, we can look to the many fire control strategies that have been created since the 1973 “America Burning” report and ensure that we are making the best efforts possible in our communities to prevent and extinguish fires.

We Are Focused on Response, But Also Need to Improve Inspections and Fire Education

I can count on one hand how many fire department personnel join the fire service to conduct public education and develop and enforce fire codes. But these are key aspects of any fire department within a community. While the argument can be made that being highly proficient at emergency medical services (EMS) and having the proper response, staffing, and equipment saves more lives in a community than firefighting, we must not forget the basic tenet of the fire department – to prevent and extinguish fires.

Most of the working force on any fire department is the operations or response division because this division is what the public sees and expects. If we fail to show up to a 911 emergency, we have lost their trust.

Unfortunately, if we fail to conduct an inspection or miss an opportunity to talk to community members about fire safety, no one from the public really knows. However, regular inspections and fire safety education may prevent future fatalities or injuries that occurred to the victims of the Philadelphia and New York fires.

Unfortunately, we have no good way to determine who is cooking safely, replacing a smoke detector battery when needed or shutting the bedroom doors before sleeping. While we do have ways in the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) to track the operation of smoke detectors and the extent of fire damage, we do not have a way to quantitatively track door closures to prevent fire spread or who has attended a class in cooking safety . Maybe one day we will get this kind of information, but we have trouble filling out the most basic of fire reports now.

What Can We Do at Each Level to Prevent Future Fires?

There are various strategies that can be used to prevent future fires. At the chief level, for instance, fire services can adopt the Community Risk Reduction model. They can utilize data and community risk to target hazards and develop strategies to reduce fires throughout the community.

This model involves more than the annual fire prevention talk at a school or the occasional smoke detector check at an apartment complex. It is a comprehensive operation involving a full department; everyone in the organization is a part of a systematic process to track data and implement and update programs to match community needs.

In my organization, for instance, we recognized that a high percentage of fires occurred as a result of cooking. These events were especially prevalent in a few multi-family complexes. Rather than try to tell 70,000 people about cooking fires, we developed targeted educational programs for these communities.

This effort took more than just the loss prevention officer; it took fire companies, battalion officers, and chiefs to support and implement the program. While these procedures developed to lower the risk of fires are in their early stages, we are actively tracking statistics to determine if our programs have had an impact.

At the company level, you can make a difference each day. Between your trips around town to visit stores, respond to EMS calls and conduct fire inspections, you will encounter a large portion of the local population. You can talk with them about fire safety, provide a simple piece of literature like a booklet, or have a longer conversation about mitigation and education strategies.

If your fire department is like most, the engines respond to advanced life support (ALS) calls, which provides extra personnel who are available to talk with community members. At the end of the 911 call, for example, have the engine company provide an education session or leave a piece of literature.

Everyone in Fire Service Organizations Must Do His or Her Part

Fire is still an active threat to our communities, and each of us must do his or her part. We must take the multiple opportunities to educate the public and develop/enforce fire codes. After all, a large majority of our fire codes are developed after tragedies, so we know they are definitely needed.

Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. from a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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