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March 5, 2008
By Peter Sells

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March 5, 2008 

I attended a presentation by a career fire inspector some years back as part of a training officers' seminar. He did a very good job and obviously had an expert level of knowledge on the current technology of sprinklers, various types of detectors and smoke alarms. 

Toward the end of his talk, he used the word 'proactive' to describe such technologies. I challenged him on this point, taking the position that any technology that becomes active only after a fire has begun cannot be described as proactive.

By definition, proactive measures are measures taken in advance of an event, usually an undesirable event, to prevent the occurrence of the conditions required for the event to happen. A sprinkler head reacts to heat. Detectors react to smoke or specific gases. The fire must have occurred in the very recent past in order for these devices to activate, therefore the devices are reactive with respect to the fire event. The design, installation and inspection of reactive devices all take place in advance of the fire, but these activities are in support of a reactive measure, so are they truly proactive? After all, installing a sprinkler head does not prevent a fire. 

Is this argument anything more than an exercise in semantics? Sure, I can be a stickler on that from time to time, but rather than comparing these technologies (rapidly and automatically reactive) to a full first-alarm emergency response (less rapidly reactive and dependent on human action), let's compare them to public fire safety education. 

Public education is the single most important responsibility of the fire service in our society. It is the one truly proactive pursuit in which we can engage that will ultimately reduce injury, death and financial loss due to fire and preventable accidents.

All other activities involving regulation, inspection, enforcement or emergency response are dependent upon the occurrence of an undesired event, or upon the expectation that without such activity an undesired event is more likely to occur.   

An effective public education program that encourages safe behaviours and discourages unsafe behaviours throughout our communities is the only weapon in our arsenal that defeats the enemy before the battle begins.


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