By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer
It’s time we in the fire service quit being so polite to people about the deadly threat that fire poses to them, their families, and their communities. It’s time to stop “suggesting” that it’s a good idea to have a working smoke detector on every level of their home. Time to stop “making excuses” for the dead following a preventable fire where no working smoke detectors were present. And it’s time to stop making excuses for parents who manage to get out of a burning home, but their children do not because the parents never had or practiced a Home Fire Escape Plan with their children.
I’ve always grieved for people who lose loved ones to fire and I’ve grieved for the firefighters who located and removed the deceased after the flames have been doused. But I’m tired of grieving and I’m tired of our “suggestive” approach to fire prevention and public fire education. I think it’s far past the time when we need to take a “get in their face” approach and provide the “wake up call” that too many people (the ones who have died, and continue to die in preventable fires) didn’t hear because our “volume” was too low.
This morning my local newspaper had a story from the Associated Press about the deadly fire in the past few days that claimed the lives of seven children—three girls, ages 6, 11, and 16, and four boys, ages 5, 8, 10, and 12—from the same family in Brooklyn. Their mother escaped the burning home through a window; the father was away from the home on business.
This is not an accident. This is not a tragedy. The moral of this story is that this entire event—from the energized
hot plate in the kitchen to deaths of seven children—was entirely preventable. Forget for the moment about the source of ignition for the fire—the hot plate being left on.
Firefighters from FDNY arrived at the scene of the fire four minutes after the 911 call was received from a neighbor who saw the smoke and flames coming from the home (We know it’s never good when the initial 911 caller gives the call taker such a description, right?). When those firefighters forced entry into the home they, “encountered a hopeless situation—a raging fire that had already spread through the kitchen, dining room, common hall, stairway leading upstairs, and the read bedroom.” (The Sunday Gazette-Mail, Charleston, WV, 3/22/1015).
FDNY’s Fire Commissioner, Daniel Nigro, was quoted as saying, “Unfortunately, the outcome [the fire deaths] may have been determined before they [the firefighters] arrived.” When asked about a smoke detector (apparently in working order) that was found in the basement of the home, Commissioner Nigro stated, “To hear a smoke detector two floors below [the second-floor bedrooms where the children died] is asking a lot.”
My point is not to “slam” Fire Commissioner Nigro for his statements because they are indicative of the “way” we talk about such deadly events to the media, the public, our elected official, etc. What I would like to see is a 180 degree change in the way we describe these events for those who weren’t there so that we “scare the pants off of them” about the terrorist (that’s right, I said terrorist!) who “lurks” in their home with them every day.
I’d like to hear someone like Fire Commissioner Nigro say:
Unfortunately, the death of these children was determined before our firefighters arrived because there were no working smoke detectors on the first and second floors of the home. Every home should have working smoke detectors on all levels of home. Had there been working smoke detectors these children would not have died because they’d have been alerted to the fire while they still had time to escape the home.
I’d like to see powerful fire officials, like Fire Commissioner Nigro, look into the television camera and tell their communities, in no uncertain terms:
If you do not have a working smoke detector on every level of your home, and you do not have a Home Fire Escape Plan for you and your family, and you do not practice that plan monthly, there’s a high probability that you or a member of your family will die because of a fire where you’ll not be able to escape.
We humans are not perfect, and therefore while we should all diligently work towards preventing fires in our home, fires can still happen. That’s why you and your family must have the “last line of defense” that are provided by having working smoke detectors and a Home Fire Escape Plan that you practice on a regular basis. That “last line of defense” will likely only provide you with a couple of minutes to escape the fire, and those couple of minutes will make all the difference in the world.
Unfortunately, most people only pay attention when something is happening in the present or in the very recent past (which today seems to be the past 24 hours and not much longer). They also are not “getting” our fire safety message in the present form.
So I’m proposing the following strategies for reducing fire deaths and injuries across North America:
- Remove all references to fire safety, fire prevention or any other euphemisms in our written and spoken communications to the public. We’re really concerned with fire death and injury reduction so spell it out to everyone, every day, in every way.
- Use social media to capitalize on every opportunity to capture the public’s attention and get the fire death and injury reduction message into their brain.
- Use your department Twitter account to Tweet the address of every fire determined (after investigation) to have been preventable, along with the preventable cause, e.g., “House fire at 1234 Easy Street. Caused determined to be from unattended pan on stove. [Insert hyperlink here to you webpage that has cooking safety tips]. Repeat this twice in the coming 24-hour period.
- Use your department’s Facebook Page to reinforce the Twitter message with photographs of the fire scene (interior shots only) that show the point of origin, the path of fire spread, and the degree of damage to the interior of the structure. Repeat this twice in the coming 24-hour period.
- For the next 48 hours, repeat your Twitter tweets and Facebook posts twice daily to optimize their reach into your community.