NFPA Impact: May 2019
Aiming for an active and informed public
I heard about the NFPA ecosystem during a meeting in Quincy, Mass., more than a year ago. I was baffled. I was sure an ecosystem was something I learned about in the rainforest segment of Grade 5 science class. What the heck did an ecosystem have to do with NFPA and, in particular, fire prevention and public education?
In today’s parlance, an ecosystem can refer to a group of elements that interact to create a positive outcome. The old kind of ecosystem – the rainforest type – adapts, over time, to change caused by external factors such as climate and humans. The new type of ecosystem is much more fragile; humans control the dynamics – if one component fails, the systems breaks down and tragedies result.
The NFPA fire-safety ecosystem comprises eight elements that are critical to fire, life and electrical safety. Imagine these eight elements as cogs in a wheel. When one cog is well-oiled, it turns the next cog, and so on.
You know the elements – you work with and within them every day: government; development of codes and standards; referenced standards; investment in safety; skilled workforce; code compliance; preparedness and emergency response; and an informed public, which, of course, is where fire prevention and public education come in.
NFPA president Jim Pauley explained the ecosystem in a July 2017 NFPA Xchange blog post. Think about Grenfell Tower in London, the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, the Station nightclub fire in Warwick, R.I., Pauley wrote. All led to questions about permits, code enforcement, lack of alarms, and the role of occupants in understanding the impact of their surroundings on their own safety. Individually, the Grenfell, Ghost Ship and Station fires were tragedies. “Together,” Pauley said, “they depict a larger problem – examples of how, either intentionally or accidentally, the fire-prevention and protection system has been broken – a system the public believes exists and counts on for safety, a system that through complacency, bad policy and placing economics of construction over safety, has let down the public.”
According to Pauley, in London, Oakland and R.I., the ecosystem crumbled. In each incident, one or more elements failed, leading to the use of outdated codes and standards, the acceptance of reduced safety requirements to save money, ignoring referenced standards within a code, lack of education around application of the codes and standards, reduced enforcement, and a public unaware of the dangers of fire.
All this seems dramatic and, perhaps, far away. We’re better in Canada, or so we think. In February, seven children died in a fire in Halifax, N.S. The NFPA and other organizations have, for years, recommended residential sprinklers in all new construction. The 2006 edition of NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code, included sprinklers. Yet only four states require sprinklers in new one- and two-family homes, and although several states allow local adoption of sprinklers, 29 states have adopted legislation prohibiting sprinklers.
In Canada, the National Model Building Code remains silent on the issue however, and in spite of that, only some parts of British Columbia and a few small pockets in other provinces such as Swift Current, Sask., require sprinklers in all new homes. Why? Perceived cost, myths, and politics. Or, as Pauley put it, “When users fail to review and follow standards that are referenced in the codes, they aren’t ensuring the right practices and products are used in the right situations, increasing vulnerability to disaster.
“And when the public takes for granted and is uneducated about fire risks, their improper or uneducated actions can place them at peril.”
NFPA’s Lorraine Carli, vice-president of advocacy, legislation and public education, explained in NFPA Journal what this means for public education. “I believe we need to add campaigns and messages about the importance of up-to-date codes and standards to our public education and advocacy efforts,” she wrote. “We need to encourage members of the public to be more responsible for their own safety, to take a close look around their homes and other places they frequent and to ask about fire-protection systems.
“In short, the public should take on a greater role in ensuring that governments are committed to safer buildings through up-to-date codes. Only then will the reality more closely match the perception.”
That’s the informed public part of the ecosystem. And that’s my mission.
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