Complacency Breeds Disaster

By Jim Pauley, president and CEO, NFPA

Tragic fires in Baltimore, the Bronx, and Philadelphia didn’t have to happen, but safety-culture breakdowns continue to result in preventable deaths and losses.

When I think of the recent fires in Baltimore, the Bronx, and Philadelphia—blazes that combined to kill 32 people, including 17 children and three first responders —I can’t help but think how preventable those events were.

As the president of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an organization dedicated to the pursuit of global fire and life safety, I know that our association and others work tirelessly to deliver codes and standards, research, and tools so that communities around the world can reduce their fire risk. Safety-focused professionals and practitioners enhance these resources with their own initiative and innovations, and share stories about successfully navigating a host of natural and man-made hazards, including fire. But I’m also painfully aware of the instances where efforts to protect people and property fail, and it is heartbreaking to hear of deadly events that may have had a different outcome if only a single element of the safety equation had gone differently.

Three firefighters in Baltimore dying in a January 24 abandoned rowhouse fire was the highest line-of-duty death toll that we have witnessed in a little more than five years, but just one week before the fatal fire in West Baltimore, a St. Louis firefighter was also killed when buried under debris during a house fire.

Two weeks before the firefighter fatalities, a residential tower fire killed 17, including eight children, in the Bronx. The incident was the second-deadliest home fire in the U.S. in nearly 40 years. The blaze was blamed on a malfunctioning space heater in a unit on a lower floor. Open doors allowed deadly smoke to fill much of the building. And when smoke alarms sounded, many residents ignored them, thinking they were yet another false alarm. Most of the deaths and injuries – more than 60 people were hurt, including 13 who were hospitalized in critical condition – were the result of severe smoke inhalation.

Four days prior to the Bronx fire, a blaze in a rowhouse in Philadelphia’s Fairmont neighborhood killed 12 people. A child playing with a cigarette lighter was thought to have lit a Christmas tree on fire, trapping the occupants on the unit’s two floors. There were no operating smoke alarms in the unit, and no fire sprinklers. All the people who died were members of the same extended family. The victims included eight children. The five-year-old suspected of starting the fire was one of two survivors.

After the Philadelphia tragedy, Adam Thiel, fire commissioner for the City of Philadelphia, spoke at a press conference about the fire investigation underway. At the close of his remarks, Thiel added a telling aside: that as he spoke, Philadelphia firefighters were battling an active fire, and that they had responded to four fires already that day, including one with a rescue. Within the first week of the new year, the Philly fire department had responded to 50 severe working fires, including the devastating Fairmont fire. “The beat goes on for us,” he said. “Fire is Everyone’s Fight.”

It absolutely is, and that sentiment was echoed in a live discussion that I facilitated on January 25, 2022, with Thiel, Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, U.S. Fire Administrator, and Joseph Jardin, assistant chief with the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) and chief of FDNY’s fire prevention. The exchange was arranged swiftly so that top fire leaders could speak to the recent catastrophic events and the persistent U.S. fire problem while public and policy interest was heightened.

At NFPA we have taken the U.S. Fire Administration’s “Fire is Everyone’s Fight” sentiment and slogan a step further. To better define and explain the various elements that go into the creation of a meaningful and effective safety culture, we developed the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem several years ago. The Ecosystem is a set of eight interconnected components that work together to keep people and property safe from fire and other hazards. The Ecosystem includes policymakers setting the right regulatory framework; jurisdictions using the most updated codes and standards; applying all standards referenced within the primary fire, life safety, building, and electrical codes; prioritizing safety across the board; promoting the development of skilled workers in these fields to apply the codes and standards; supporting effective code enforcement; providing effective preparedness and response capabilities; and educating the public on the dangers posed by fire, electrical, and related hazards. Every cog is essential; when one or more elements of the Ecosystem is missing or ignored, tragedies can occur.

This framework grew out of a spate of horrendous events that included the Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017. Electrical malfunctions in the building’s interior started a fire, which then spread to the outside of the building. The tower’s exterior was clad with highly combustible (and non-code-compliant) wall assemblies, and fire raced up and around the entire exterior of the building, gaining entrance to the interior as it went. Seventy-two people were killed. Also in 2017, four people died in a fire in a condominium complex in Hawaii where efforts to retrofit it with fire sprinklers had been consistently deferred because of the cost. In 2016, 36 people died in a fire that occurred in a makeshift live/work artist space in Oakland, CA. The building, dubbed the “Ghost Ship,” was beset with numerous code violations, among a host of other problems; when a fire began during a concert in the building, those deficiencies made it impossible for many people to escape the rapidly growing fire.

In all these instances, it wasn’t just one element of the safety ecosystem that failed – it was multiple factors, and those failures had the effect of compounding the risk for residents and intensifying the loss when things went wrong. I suspect that as we learn more about the tragic fires in Baltimore, the Bronx, and Philadelphia, the number of breakdowns in the safety ecosystem for each event will only grow.

There is one common thread among these events though, and that is complacency. A reduced number of fires over the decades has led the public and policymakers to believe that fire is no longer a significant risk and that tragedies on such a scale can’t happen in their communities – until they do. Whether in urban areas, rural communities, or neighborhoods in the path of wildfires, fire continues to aggressively claim lives and property. It is time to embrace and employ essential aspects of the safety ecosystem, policies, and practices that we know work: use and enforcement of the latest codes and standards, ensuring first responders have the resources needed for their all-hazards role, and making sure that the public knows what to do before and during emergencies to protect themselves, their families, and their property. All these objectives are attainable, and all of them are essential if we hope to prevent the kind of safety-culture failures that we see over and over again.

January’s tragic, high-profile fires are our latest wake-up calls. It’s time for us to shrug off our dangerous complacency and take steps to advance safety. An instructive, inclusive framework like the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem can help us not just conceptualize a holistic approach to safety, but also determine the steps we can take to create the specific processes and partnerships that can make it a reality.

If we don’t proactively and prescriptively take steps to change the narrative now and moving forward, we shouldn’t be surprised at the news of yet another tragedy that could have been prevented.

Jim Pauley is the president and chief executive officer of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), a global self-funded nonprofit organization devoted to eliminating death, injury, property, and economic loss due to fire, electrical, and related hazards. Prior to joining NFPA, Pauley concluded a 30-year career in the electrical and energy industry, where he most recently served as senior vice president, external affairs and government relations for Schneider Electric. Pauley serves as the chair of the Board of Trustees for the Fire Protection Research Foundation, the research affiliate of NFPA. He has also served in several past leadership positions including chair of the board for the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).