Fire Prevention: Why We Do It, Why It's Important
A respected colleague of mine in the fire protection industry once told me rather bluntly, “I’m not really in this business to save lives, I’m in this business to make money.” The man is an outspoken, ball-of-fire (forgive the pun) fire sprinkler advocate, yet also acknowledges the “green handcuff” reality - we must all strive to earn a responsible living.
Over the years, his sphere of influence would enlighten me with regard to more far-reaching implications of the business of fire protection - like the fact that, at any time, somewhere a building is burning. And the fact that every single day in the United States, fire sprinklers extinguish a fire.
He also introduced me to the unsettling reality of anguish and disfigurement suffered by burn victims, some of whom have survived after being burned alive for 15 minutes or more. Certainly, anyone who has visited a burn camp and witnessed the carnage to human flesh that fire can inflict would be a strong advocate for fire sprinklers in any building, as I am today.
It’s doubtful that many fire protection professionals are “in it for the money.” An article written in the early 1990s predicted that fire protection engineering was an up-and-coming “hot money” vocation. Compared to other professional careers today, however, it is not. But the work itself proves interesting, challenging, rewarding, but with a financial ceiling nonetheless. Some say it is a vocation they feel drawn to.
Past (and Present) LivesOnce in awhile, I’ll talk to someone in the industry who relays to me some long-ago incident, usually from their childhood, in which a close encounter with fire scared them senseless. I wonder if that incident isn’t what attracted them to fire protection engineering in the first place. However, most in this business have no true-life experiences to discuss and rather, seem to fall into the regimen of engineering based on either their own confidence with the trade, or their “knowing somebody,” or their simply filling a spot long ago while working for an engineering firm.
When I was six, a friend of mine (Wiley) and I were playing with matches as unsupervised children often do, in a neighborhood field on a hot day. Dry ground coupled with a slight breeze stirred up a little brush fire, a virtual nightmare that began to spread. Frightened beyond belief, the two of us frantically stamped away at the flames, uncertain if our attempts would succeed. The fire finally succumbed to our efforts after probably 15 minutes, at which time we laid down on the ground exhausted. We went home wordlessly, contemplating this insane thing we did and wondering why we had been so crazy in the first place.
Years later I was invited to a “psychic party” with several other couples. This was a random occasion, fun in a way, in which people would sit, one at a time in a separate room, with this professional psychic for a “reading.” My session I tape-recorded. Running out of questions well before the allotted time, the psychic asked if I would like to know where I had been in my previous lives. After I agreed, he morphed into a semi-trance of sorts, rolled his eyes, and spoke very quickly.
Amidst the babbling narrative was this little tidbit: ”I want to go far, far back because one of the strongest things I see is around 12th or 13th century England, Ireland, or Scotland, somewhere in that area. They look like castles and stuff - it was always very damp or humid. I see a strong draw there, so it had to be something with that, and I think you were some type of a monk. And I think that at the abbey that you were at, there was a big fire, too, okay, and really interesting. And I think a lot of brothers were killed there, in this fire, because it had forgotten in the middle of the night. And yet, I don’t know quite why because it had just rained before that so it is kind of interesting to me. A keeper of old books, too - there were a lot of books that were lost in this. And I see a strong draw in that area.”
Maybe I was traumatized about 800 years ago. Hard to say. It’s also hard to refute a psychic with regard to facts about your own “past life.” I suppose I’ll keep my day job. The psychic has his own career to contend with, but frankly I have dismissed his narrative as nothing more than staged incoherent hogwash.
It Keeps Me GoingWhat draws me to this industry and keeps me toiling away can be summed up by what happened in Cassian, WI, in the early morning hours of June 27, 2008.
A three-story resort known for years as the Idlewild, and, more recently, the Birch Lake Bar & Resort, was built in 1920. Always a gathering place for the community, it was also once home to the local post office. The lodge was purchased in 1997 by Meetcho Stojsavljevic, an eastern European immigrant, who lived there with his wife and together put in thousands of hours and dollars to restore the landmark to its former glory.
The work consumed his whole life, but a 1:00 a.m. fire erased everything very quickly. Resonant noises awakened a neighbor who was asleep on her porch. Seeing flames coming from the southeast corner of the structure, she called 911. Fire engines arrived about 20 minutes later to the remote rural location, at which time the big lodge had become a smoking, roaring inferno.
The old tinderbox burned to the ground and continued smoking for three days. It was initially thought that an icemaker (located at the fire origin) initiated the blaze, but the cause was later determined to be ashtrays dumped into a waste receptacle at cleanup time. Despondent for days, Meetcho could only repeat that “there are better days ahead,” and “no one is going to stop me.”
Today we know that a fire starting in a house without a fire sprinkler system will be engulfed in flames in seven to eight minutes. Yes, we build with non-combustible materials, but saying that a non-sprinklered home is fireproof is analogous to saying the Titanic is unsinkable, because there is no such thing as a house filled with non-combustible contents and commodities.
The only thing that comes close to being as devastating as having your house burn to the ground is having your neighbor’s house burn to the ground. Your sense of security vanishes with the realization that no stop-gap measure exists with 100% integrity. If you live in a rural or unincorporated area with no hydrants or available water supply, it’s a wake-up call.
Fortunately for the Idlewild, no one was killed or injured in the June 27 fire. What no one mentioned at the time was “a fire sprinkler system could have easily extinguished that fire before it spread more than 15 feet.” But no one had to say that, everyone knows.
Our goal in the fire protection community should be succinctly geared toward a nation of fire-safe homes. It has been estimated that a house burns in the U.S. every 80 seconds. The scope of this crisis is huge and ongoing. Nearly 3,000 Americans perish in home fires annually, and rural areas are the hardest hit. As stated by U.S. Fire Administrator Gregory Cade, “communities with fewer than 2,500 residents have a per capita fire death rate almost twice the national rate.”
Acknowledging that the response time of an urban fire department averages between four and six minutes proves that rural populations have a greater need for safety. Fire protection efforts to mitigate the problem revolve around in-place fire protection, fire and smoke detection codes, public fire safety education, fire-safe cigarettes, and consumer product safety. Fire-safe cigarette legislation has now been endorsed by 22 states.
The NFPA reports that cooking is the leading cause of all residential fires and home fire injuries. These fires, too, could be effectively stopped with residential sprinklers. In September, the Fire Protection Research Foundation released a report, which stated that the cost of a sprinkler system to a home builder (including permit, increased tapping fees, and all associated building costs), averages just $1.61 per square foot. That is money well spent when you consider that U.S. fire departments respond to 1,100 home fire calls daily.
The focus should be on the need for fire prevention. Prevention is why we do it and prevention is why it’s important.
As for the Idlewild, being situated too close (30 feet) to the lake and way too close to the road, the town board had no choice initially but to disallow its rebuilding. Its fate was to be sealed at the July 10 town meeting when, according to one report, the whole town of Cassian (along with residents of neighboring Nokomis and Harshaw) showed up, creating a big flap and the powers that be “changed their minds very quickly.”
A new lodge, somewhat smaller in size, will be rebuilt at the old location. This outcome was not possible without people battling with resiliency through dire circumstances and augmented by community collaboration. But the most fortuitous outcome can be summed up in two words: no fatalities. There are others not so fortunate as Meetcho. It could have been worse.