Author(s): Meghan Housewright. Published on November 1, 2017.

Right Here, Right Now

Why the new NFPA Fire and Life Safety Policy Institute can be an indispensable resource for decision makers at all levels of government

Almost every community has a notorious building that’s known to local code officials for all the wrong reasons. Near where I live, that building is the Lynnhill Condominium Complex in Temple Hills, Maryland. The building, constructed in the 1970s, has no sprinklers and has long been plagued with code violations, unpaid utility bills, and negative headlines in The Washington Post. In August, citing dangling wires, combustible debris in the hallways, broken fire doors, and an inoperable fire alarm system, the Prince Georges County fire chief ordered the building evacuated and shuttered. While it was the right call from a safety standpoint, it also left 130 residents, many of them lower-income and elderly, unsure where they would next call home.

Government has long played a central role in reducing fire and life safety risks for its citizens, either directly through physical resources and personnel, or indirectly through laws and policies. These actions and policies play a significant role in the fire prevention and protection system that safeguards lives and property. But the world is a complex place, and the Lynnhill situation is a perfect example of how policies on fire safety are intertwined with an array of other public policy issues—in this case, affordable housing, public assistance, and homelessness—and how a change to one variable can impact numerous others.

That complexity is why the recently launched NFPA Fire and Life Safety Policy Institute is so needed right now. The Policy Institute, which will be based in Washington, D.C., will be a resource to help policymakers navigate the complex challenges of today’s world and develop new ideas and policy recommendations to strengthen and improve fire and life safety systems in the United States and internationally. The institute will help government leaders understand the impact of their decisions on the programs, rules, resources, and institutions needed to protect life safety. As director, I will lead efforts to analyze issues that challenge fire and life safety systems and reach policymakers with recommended approaches that help fulfill one of government’s primary responsibilities—protecting public safety.

It is a critical time to look at our safety ecosystem and the factors that ensure it functions properly. We have seen a recent spate of troubling large-loss fires, including the Ghost Ship Fire in Oakland last year that killed 36 people, deadly structure fires in Hawaii and London, and huge wildfires that continue to rage across the U.S. In addition to fire, policymakers face an array of diverse challenges that indirectly affect life safety in their communities: more severe weather, demographic changes, urbanization, changes to infrastructure, and many others.

With these challenges as a backdrop, the institute will look at topics that impact public safety, including timely codes and standards adoption, the balance between safety and cost, the support of code enforcement activity, and the development of skilled professionals who can apply the code. We will also look at educating policymakers and members of the public about the dangers fire hazards pose and the need to work together for solutions for all of our stakeholders without compromising safety.

Decisions like the one to condemn Lynnhill can be complex and cause safety officials to weigh a number of factors, relying on the type of knowledge and information NFPA has long produced to protect lives. By developing ideas and approaches that link fire and life safety with efforts to address other policy challenges, the Policy Institute will help broaden the guidance and tools available for decision makers as they seek to avoid fires and protect citizens. The public looks to its government leaders to protect lives, property, and communities, and the Policy Institute will be an important resource to help fulfill these expectations.

MEGHAN HOUSEWRIGHT is director of the Fire and Life Safety Policy Institute.