People can be good, bad and careless. As these stories attest, provisions for fire safety need your continued support.

This 1985 Federal/Emergency One fire engine contains a 500-gallon tank along with a 1,250-gpm pumper. But danger subtly lurks because the potential for wall collapse increases with the duration of the fire, posing a very real threat to firefighters. Photo by Mike Charnota.

Medical Facility Requirements in the 2009 International Fire Code

Among the plethora of new provisions unveiled for the 2009 IFC is this safety premium: All new and existing non-sprinklered hospitals, nursing homes, and other Group I-2 occupancies are to require automatic fire sprinkler protection. This welcome resolution is a code change that has been approved. Most jurisdictions currently enforce the 2006 IFC, so retrofit requirements will begin to be enforced as municipalities adopt the 2009 version of the I-codes. Currently, the IFC is adopted at the state or local level in more than 40 states.

There are approximately three million seniors (and disabled) currently residing in nursing homes across the U.S. These long-term care facilities are now required by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to provide fire sprinkler systems throughout their premises if they wish to serve Medicare beneficiaries. There is a five-year window for compliance, beginning on June 18, 2008. CMS executive Kerry Weems stated that CMS is taking this action “to protect the lives of our beneficiaries through a more comprehensive and effective approach to fire safety…we now will hold all 16,000 nursing homes in the nation to this standard.”

The rate for structures without sprinklers is 10.8 deaths per 1,000 fires, a rate that drops to 1.9 deaths per 1,000 fires in buildings that are fully sprinklered. Some U.S. states have enforced stringent requirements for many years to ensure that all its nursing homes be fully protected by automatic sprinklers.

2009 Begins With Two Fatal Fires

At 7:00 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2009, a home fire originating between the basement and first floor took the lives of six people, including three children, in Washington, D.C. The house contained two smoke detectors that may not have operated. D.C. Fire Chief Dennis Rubin remarked that what accelerated the fire spread in this 1940s vintage home was its “balloon frame” combustible construction, devoid of firestops. Firefighters managed to rescue several people who were trapped inside. The following day, EMS and firefighting personnel returned to the Northeast neighborhood to pass out free smoke detectors.

In Ringling, OK, on Jan. 5, an early morning fire claimed three more lives in what was started inadvertently by homeowners using the stove to stay warm. This deadly blaze boosted the Oklahoma home fire death total to six in just one week. Included in a statement made by Agent Judah Sheppard of the Oklahoma State Fire Marshal’s Office was this advisory: “Don’t use your stoves for heat. Don’t use electric blankets and cover them up over, they’re meant to be on top. Don’t over use electric strips. Make sure when you’re using space heaters they’re the new modern type that when they tip over, they’ll shut off.”

U.S. fire departments responded to more than 64,000 home fires that involved heating equipment in 2006, which led to 540 deaths. The NFPA reports that heating fires accounted for 16% of all home structure fires that same year (second behind kitchen fires). Half of all home heating fires occur in December, January, and February. The NFPA report further states that space heaters were responsible for 73% of (heating fire) civilian fatalities. Among all central heating options, gas-fueled equipment has the lowest rate for fire incidence and property damage.

Nightclub Fire During New Year's Eve Celebration

The Santika Club, a popular upscale nightclub in downtown Bangkok, Thailand, was the site of a horrific fire on Dec. 31, 2008, that resulted in 61 deaths. Conflicting reports from witnesses left officials unclear on the cause of the blaze. Some pointed to revelers waving sparklers and using other pyrotechnics. Some blamed it on a midnight fireworks display, while others felt certain that an electrical fault was the cause.      

A sudden fireball erupted from the second-floor stage area in front of the dancing celebrants, some of whom thought it was part of the show. Chaos ensued shortly thereafter and, after the lights went out, some were trampled when trying to escape. Others were buried in rubble when the ceiling caved in, and succumbed to smoke inhalation. The concrete-constructed club held 700-800 people at the fire’s onset.

Among the 212 who were injured were citizens of Nepal, Japan, England, and the Netherlands. The two-story structure had only one door for public entry and exit. A firefighter at the scene said there was another door at the rear of the structure, which was known only to the staff. Bars across the second-floor windows further limited egress attempts.

Nightclub fire disasters have a long, ugly history. Since the awful fire at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, RI, (Feb. 20, 2003, 100 deaths), there have been seven catastrophic nightclub fires worldwide, including this nightmare at the Santika Club. Those include tragedies in Buenos Aires (Dec. 2004, 192 fatalities), Zhongshan, China (Dec. 2005, 26 fatalities), Moscow (March 2007, 10 fatalities), Fuzhou, China (Sept. 2007, 12 fatalities), Quito, Ecuador (April 2008, 14 fatalities), and Shenzhen, China (Sept. 2008, 43 fatalities). Typically, overcrowding and limited egress is an issue. In the case of the Santika Club, rescue teams remarked that most of the bodies were found in the building’s basement.

The first minutes of a home fire are critical for survival. Fatalities are most likely to occur when a fire burns out of control, blocking escape exits with heat and smoke.

Injury from Wall Collapse

On Jan. 3, 2009, firefighter Terry Burr (Conneaut, OH) was battling a three-alarm fire in a vacant structure at about 3:30 a.m. when he was struck by a flaming wall that had collapsed. The ensuing fire damage left the building unsalvageable. The phenomenon of sudden and unexpected collapsing building walls is an inglorious and distressing problem well known to the fire protection community. Excluding those lost in the progressive structural collapse of the World Trade Center Towers, there is documented an average of eight firefighter fatalities per year resulting from structural collapse of a burning building.

Firefighter Arson in California

On Oct. 29, 2008, 30-year old firefighter Robert Eason was found guilty of intentionally setting wildfires that he later battled. Eason was accused of setting 16 forest fires, beginning in 2005, and was convicted on 14 counts of arson. The fires destroyed both farmland and hundreds of sheep and other livestock. Eason can be sentenced up to 50 years in prison for his crimes. When asked about the ongoing insidious problem of firefighter arson, fireman Pat Stack could only shake his head and comment, “it’s a strange beast.”

September Named National Campus Fire Safety Month

Lawmakers were joined on Capitol Hill on Sept. 9, 2008, by 80 students and campus fire-safety advocates to launch Campus Fire Safety Month. In attendance for a press conference, calling for national awareness of college fire safety and fire protection issues, were Rep. David Price (NC), Rep. Bill Pascrell (NJ), Rep. Joe Wilson (SC), Rep. James Clyburn (SC), and New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg. Chapel Hill, NC, Fire Chief Dan Jones commented that it is “significant that universities tied together in fire loss tragedies are bringing students together in Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress and other federal officials in order to prevent other institutions of higher learning from suffering similar tragedies.”

Deadly Use of Fireworks

Another senseless incident in the endless litany of fireworks misuse occurred on Aug. 11, 2007, in off-campus (Bradley University) housing in Peoria, IL. A drunken late-night escapade led to the death of a Division I athlete, sophomore Danny Dahlquist, who succumbed to asphyxiation due to smoke inhalation. The fire was caused by the lighting of a roman candle that had been placed under the door of Dahlquist’s room by his four housemates (other soccer players, aged 21, 22, 19, 20) following a night of drinking.

The incendiary device shot off 16 balls of fire that burned at about 1,500°F and ignited the wall across from the door. Dahlquist had been asleep, but was later found on the floor near a window, indicating that he had attempted to escape the ensuing fire. The four young men had run outside, saw the glowing second-floor window, and then rushed to rescue their friend but were turned away by prodigious smoke and intense heat.

Later that month, the four were charged with aggravated arson (a felony that can lead to 6-30 years in jail) and possession of an explosive device. Each pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter (a reduced felony as part of a plea agreement) and were convicted in January 2008 and sentenced to six months without probation in the Peoria County Jail and ordered to pay more than $20,000 in restitution.

Consumer fireworks in America are available in 45 of the 50 states, combining for more than 9,000 injuries each year, many of which are serious (to the head, hands, and eyes) and typically the result of use by juveniles. While fatalities are a rare outcome (an annual average of six in the U.S.), the fact is that pyrotechnics in any form pose real danger when used unsafely.