Like many in our industry, my view of the current state of fire protection is largely biased towards the geographic area where I practice my profession. I have always seen the world through the lens of my experience in the United States. I started to travel professionally in the late 1990’s and quickly learned that my knowledge and skills could not be seamlessly applied to other locations around the globe. At times, I found myself frustrated with the lack of local codes, ineffective enforcement of adopted codes and standards, and ignorance regarding the role and function of fire protection systems.
There are many components that make up effective fire and life safety cultures. During its 2018 annual conference and expo, Jim Pauley, the president and CEO of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) introduced the NFPA Fire and Life Safety Ecosystem. The Ecosystem identifies eight components that must work together to minimize risk and create a fire safe environment. When any part of the Ecosystem is missing or broken, the results can be tragic. In nearly all cases, fire incidents that result in injury, death, or severe loss of property are the result of a breakdown of the Ecosystem.
The eight components of the NFPA Fire and Life Safety Ecosystem consist of Government Responsibility, Development and Use of Current Codes, Referenced Standards, Investment in Safety, Skilled Workforce, Code Compliance, Preparedness and Emergency Response, and an Informed Public. Many of us work in countries where the Ecosystem is developed and utilized effectively. However, even in communities where the individual components of the system exist, we find that they do not always cooperate, or work together, to create a truly fire safe environment. As Alan Brinson wrote in the September IFP Comment, regarding the use of fire sprinklers, positive change is often disaster driven. This continues to be the case in most jurisdictions around the world.
So what can be done proactively to move toward better fire and life safety before disaster strikes? This is where an understanding of each component of the NFPA Fire and Life Safety Ecosystem, and how they work together come into play. There are four things that we all can do to proactively move our communities toward a fire and life safety culture.
First, we must take a realistic look at the current status of the Ecosystem. A particular jurisdiction may have adopted good codes and standards, but have no tools for enforcement, or may lack a skilled work force. In some cases, the public may simply accept injurious fire as an unpleasant fact that cannot be prevented or the government will not devote needed resources to the problem. When it comes to fire protection systems, education is critical. There are many governmental officials and members of the public who still believe old myths, such as the water damage from a fire sprinkler system will be worse than the damage caused by a fire.
Next, once we have conducted an analysis of the status of our Ecosystem, we should determine which broken or missing components must be addressed. We cannot fix everything at once. Instead, we must prioritize what can be done to have the greatest positive impact. For example, while conducting training in a West African nation last year, I was shocked to find that the annual death rate from fire was estimated to be over 40,000. Examining the causes of this tragic number, it became obvious that public education about personal fire safety must be a priority. It would be premature to focus on the development of codes and standards for fire protection systems when more basic issues need to be adjusted.
Then, having identified and prioritized the missing or broken components to the Ecosystem, we must develop and implement a plan to achieve the highest priority goal. The fire sprinkler association in Mexico (AMRACI), for example, is working hard with federal and state officials toward the adoption of a universal code and associated standards for the installation of fire sprinkler systems. Once these codes and standards are in place, the focus will turn to developing an effective structure for enforcement.
Finally, the last and perhaps most important work that each of us can do is to “walk the talk.” We must ask ourselves, do we truly believe in fire and life safety, or is it just business? How many of us operate our fire sprinkler businesses in unsprinklered buildings? Do we ensure that the smoke detectors in our own places of residence are working? We will not be successful in our pursuit of a fire safe world if we do not have a passion for what we do and are willing to set the example for those whom we serve.
I encourage you to familiarize yourself with the NFPA Fire and Life Safety Ecosystem. It can be found on the NFPA website at nfpa.org. Let’s not wait for disaster to drive us towards better fire and life safety. As fire and life safety professionals, we must lead the way.