Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on January 4, 2016.

Voices Carry

The importance of personal stories to drive home the advocacy message. BY LORRAINE CARLI

I ARRIVED AT NFPA ten years ago this month as the association was launching the Coalition for Fire Safe Cigarettes. That effort required tobacco manufacturers to make cigarettes in a way that they would be less likely to cause a fire if they were dropped in bedding or on upholstered furniture.

Cigarettes were the leading cause of home fires, killing between 700 and 900 people per year out of the roughly 3,000 people who died in fires annually. About a quarter of the people who died in cigarette-related fires were not the smoker. The coalition was NFPA’s first foray into an aggressive advocacy mode, gathering fire service, public health, and other organizations interested in moving fire safety forward on an issue that had been successfully opposed by the tobacco industry for decades. The compelling statistics were front and center in our work, but that wasn’t what carried the day. It was the voices that personified the numbers.

Just miles from NFPA’s headquarters in Massachusetts, the Kearney family had lost five family members and a friend in a horrific 1990 blaze started by a cigarette. The Kearneys, led by matriarch Mary Kearney, became some of the most recognized spokespersons for fire-safe cigarettes. Year after year they had lent their voices and their story to national and state efforts to pass fire-safe cigarette legislation, without success. The establishment of the coalition, however, gave them a new platform and an opportunity to combine their voices with those of the nation’s first responders and others. In 2006, Massachusetts was one of the first states to pass fire-safe cigarette legislation, and by 2009 all 50 states had done the same. NFPA research has shown a decline in cigarette-related fire deaths since full implementation of the laws.

This taught us a powerful lesson. While facts and figures are crucial to advocating for various elements of fire safety, there is no substitution for the words that come directly from those impacted by fire. Ten years ago, the approach happened somewhat serendipitously. Today, as we work to eliminate loss from fire, we need to be sure to include these critical voices.

We have gained increased attention with this approach in a variety of advocacy efforts. As part of our home fire sprinkler initiative, we have expanded the voices beyond those who have lost loved ones or been injured to include the fire service, who must respond to those fires, and community members, who must deal with fires in their neighborhoods, among many other voices. In our electrical safety advocacy work, we recently saw a victory in Alabama when Charlie Donaghe, who was severely burned in an electrical fire in his home in 1971, testified against efforts to roll back the requirements for arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) that prevent many electrical fires. Charlie’s powerful personal story, and his conviction that a devastating fire in his home could have been avoided had AFCIs been in place, were the most effective pieces of information presented to the deciding board. The proposal was defeated.

As effective as these voices can be, they are still indicators of serious fire-safety problems that we are striving to eliminate. Our ultimate success will be no need for those voices, because we will have accomplished our mission.

​LORRAINE CARLI is vice president of Outreach and Advocacy for NFPA.