Occupy Fire Safety
Protestors and police confer following a fire in December at the Occupy San Fransisco site near Justin Herman Plaza. (Photo: AP/World Wide)
For fire officials, concern and frustration over the Occupy sites—and relief in the wake of widespread evictions
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2012
By Fred Durso, Jr.
On a chilly, rainy December afternoon, a member of Occupy Boston led a reporter on a tour of the site’s fire safety features. The Occupier, a young man named Seth M. — he declined to give his last name — sporting a thin beard and a Red Sox cap, pointed to the white buckets, designated as cigarette receptacles, that dotted the site’s perimeter. Numerous signs were posted to remind Occupiers that heating sources were prohibited. Seth talked about the nearly $400 worth of fire extinguishers that were purchased by the group and placed "methodically" throughout the site. He also noted that a retired firefighter donated 50 smoke alarms that were placed in the tents that housed nearly 250 residents.
The unrelenting rain didn’t seem to dampen the activity in Dewey Square, a small plot of green space across the street from the Federal Reserve building in the city’s financial district. As Seth conducted his tour along the site’s makeshift walkways, passers-by approached the Occupy Boston information booth and slid money into a donation box, or handed over food items and other goods. Protesters in rain gear and bulky coats walked among the dozens of tightly packed tents that had occupied the site since late September.
Despite the recent public concerns by city officials over safety issues at the site, Seth and other Boston Occupiers claimed safety was of the utmost importance — the group had organized a winterization and fire safety working group in advance of the impending cold snap. Urban planners from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also developed plans to make the site more fire resistant, following concerns from Boston Fire Department officials over what they described as blatant fire hazards that weren’t being adequately addressed. "Everything that they have suggested we do, we have done," the 23-year-old Seth said. "We take [fire safety] very seriously. To insinuate that we don’t is incredibly insulting." Even as Seth spoke, though, a judge was in the process of ordering Occupiers off the property. The following evening, after the order was ignored by protesters, police gathered at the site and, in a mostly peaceful operation, removed the Occupy Boston encampment from Dewey Square.
The Boston action followed a string of Occupy evictions that took place across the U.S. and Canada throughout November and December, with only a smattering of cities — including Washington D.C., and Providence, Rhode Island — still permitting encampments at press time. While the public reason for many of the evictions centered around the legalities of land usage, public safety — including fire safety — was an important underlying consideration for the removal of the camps, especially as temperatures dropped and protesters were faced with the mounting challenge of keeping warm.
"Fire safety concerns were the most imminent safety hazards that had to be addressed," said Boston Fire Marshal Bart Shea, who monitored the Occupy Boston site on numerous occasions. "Yes, you’ve got public health issues. But in Boston, and I’m assuming it was the same everywhere else, the thing that was quickly visible [at the site] from a public safety perspective were enormous fire code violations."
Fires were reported at a handful of Occupy sites. A burning candle ignited a tent at the Occupy Calgary camp in Canada, injuring two men. A series of fires at Occupy Winnipeg may have been intentionally set; a fire in Muncie, Indiana, in November that destroyed a park bench and protester belongings was ruled accidental. At least one fire was reported at an Occupy encampment in San Francisco.
Before the Occupy Vancouver campsite was disbanded in November, Fire Chief John McKearney expressed aggravation over lax compliance with fire safety measures by certain protestors. When the department’s presence wasn’t visible, McKearney said, conditions apparently deteriorated, despite the best intentions of many Occupiers. "A number of people here are very committed [to making the site safe], but in my view it’s very difficult for [it] to stay compliant," McKearney told The Globe and Mail. "I am frustrated, and the [volunteers] are frustrated, too."
Shea told NFPA Journal that he experienced similar frustrations at the Boston camp. Monitoring the site one evening, he came across a tent full of men smoking cigarettes. Knowing the extreme flammability of their shelter, Shea asked them to extinguish the cigarettes, but the men ignored the request. He then noticed another man "anointing" the Occupy site with a handful of what appeared to be burning incense that gave off embers. Protesters also alerted him of candle usage. "I feared for the lives of everyone at that site," Shea said. "There was a total lack of control, even if there were people trying to do the right thing. Those tents were so congested, and you had configurations of blue tarps and things wedged between the tents. I could have easily envisioned a fire taking hold of that place and people being trampled."
Though a crisis was averted, Shea said he learned a few lessons — chief among them to not let up on enforcement, no matter how novel the circumstances of an event. "Normally [the fire department] would have stepped in right off the bat, but we were more relaxed and worked with the police already down [at the site]," he said. "But it hit a point where we just couldn’t look away from it anymore." If he were to do it again, he said, he "would have moved much more quickly to gain compliance and not be lax with enforcement."
NFPA President James Shannon on serving two more years, and on key initiatives for 2012
By Fred Durso, Jr.
James Shannon was poised to retire in June after a 21-year employment with NFPA, including 10 years as the organization’s president. That was before a conversation with NFPA’s Board of Directors. He will now remain president until June 2014.
|YOUTUBE VIDEO CLIP
NFPA President James M. Shannon explains the association's evolving reaction to the growing wildfire issue and how it underscores a new pro-active approach to safety.
"The board felt that it would be best from the perspective of NFPA’s strategic plan to not have a change in leadership," says Shannon. "I’m excited about staying on to help bring us closer to our goals."
Initiated last year, NFPA’s strategic plan is an organization-wide effort to expand NFPA’s influence while improving codes and standards development. Shannon admits these "aggressive" goals are riskier than NFPA’s previous methods of business development. "In many ways, we’ve been a conservative organization in that we’ve always fulfilled our mission by printing materials and distributing them," he says. "The electronic opportunities we have pose some new challenges for us, but they also give us an unprecedented ability to reach more people with our safety information."
One example, Shannon says, are the new regulations governing NFPA’s code development process that use Web-based technology to broaden participation and enhance transparency. NFPA will continue training on the new process this year, with the changes taking effect during standards reporting for the Fall 2013 cycle.
Furthering the achievements related to home fire sprinklers is another priority for 2012. Sprinkler requirements went statewide last year in California and Maryland; South Carolina officially adopted sprinkler requirements, but legislation later delayed the requirement until 2014. "We continue to meet opposition, principally from homebuilding interests, but it’s not going to deter us," Shannon says. "We’ll be at this fight eight to 10 years from now. It’s the right cause, and we’re sticking to it."
Another good cause for NFPA, he says, is its response to the global threat of wildfire. Expanding on its successful Firewise Communities Program, NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division will continue developing international partnerships to safeguard lives and property against this natural phenomenon. "We’ve gotten a great response not only from the U.S. fire service and U.S. Forest Service," Shannon says, "but also from leaders all over the world who are looking for an organization with an international reputation to coordinate the global effort on wildfires."
Other international efforts for 2012 include a Fire Protection Research Foundation symposium on warehouse fire protection strategies to be held in France, and pursuing an increased presence in the Middle East. Governmental and private-sector interests from various Middle Eastern countries have already initiated talks on how NFPA’s codes and standards could best address new construction.
"Last year was a very busy year for all of us here at NFPA," Shannon says, "and 2012 is going to be even busier."
Unmasking a Concern
New study unveils deficiencies in firefighter facepieces
By Fred Durso, Jr.
WEAK LINK? Firefighter fatalities that appeared to stem from lens failure in breathing equipment prompted NIST to launch a study of self-contained breathing apparatus.
Certain exposure to heat and fire can severely compromise the facepiece lenses found in firefighter breathing equipment, according to a recent study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
Outlined in the report "Fire Exposures of Fire Fighter Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) Facepiece Lenses," researchers tested five SCBA models through a series of fire experiments in vacant Chicago-area townhouses. In certain cases, temperature and heat fluxes that exceeded heat and flame test limits set in NFPA 1981, Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) for Emergency Services, degraded lenses to the point of bubbling, severe deformation, and loss of visual acuity. During one of the tests, the lens’ exterior surfaces reached 536 degrees Fahrenheit (280 degrees Celsius), which is about the midpoint of the range of polycarbonate melt temperatures.
Prompting the study were incidents involving firefighter fatalities that seemed to involve lens failure, says Nelson Bryner, the report’s co-author and deputy division chief in the Fire Research Division of NIST’s Engineering Laboratory. "It appears that the lens is the weak link," he says. "All of the lenses tested were consistent with requirements specified in standards."
The NFPA 1981 Technical Committee on Respiratory Protection Equipment has submitted a proposal to address the study’s results, which could impact future testing parameters outlined in the standard’s 2013 edition. The report notes that additional research is needed to more accurately predict the conditions that are likely to cause facepiece failure. Download the NIST report at nist.gov.
Qatar hosts NFPA seminars, while Europe embraces fire-safe cigarettes
Qatar is the latest in a series of Middle Eastern countries seeking training on the use of NFPA codes and standards.
Working directly with Qatar’s Civil Defense Agency, NFPA staff developed five sold-out seminars attended by 350 Qatar residents in November. Training topics included NFPA 3, Recommended Practice on Commissioning and Integrated Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems; NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code; NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®; and NFPA codes addressing the installation, inspection, testing, and maintenance of sprinkler systems.
NFPA had initially delivered seminars for Qatar Civil Defense in 2009 through a third party. Taking the lead for the latest round of trainings, NFPA staff met with agency officials in July to determine the country’s codes and standards needs. Among the Qatar seminars was a "specialty standards" seminar developed by NFPA staff that highlighted provisions in NFPA 3 and information on fire suppression systems. Qatar’s Civil Defense Agency will continue talks with NFPA this year to develop additional training programs.
"We’ve received many requests for training from around the Middle East — not just from Qatar, but also from Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt," says Robert Machado, NFPA’s on-site seminar sales representative. "If Qatar’s Civil Defense Agency is talking about NFPA training, then other agencies are likely to follow."
Europe adopts new fire-safe cigarettes standards
Elsewhere, all cigarette sold in Europe must now adhere to fire safety standards. The new standards, which went into effect in November, aim to reduce smoking fires by requiring that cigarettes be manufactured in a way that makes them more likely to self-extinguish if left unattended. The European Commission defined the safety requirements in 2008, and the European Committee on Standardization developed relevant standards.
Such standards have already been turned into legislation in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. Data from Finland, where the mandatory production of fire-safe cigarettes is the law, indicates that the number of victims from cigarette-ignited fires fell 43 percent from 2003 to 2008. In the U.S., where cigarettes are the leading cause of home fire fatalities, NFPA established the Coalition for Fire-Safe Cigarettes to pursue similar legislation throughout the country. By July 2011, fire-safe cigarette laws went into effect in all 50 states.
— Fred Durso, Jr.
HOME FIRE SPRINKLERS
Nothing to Lose
New study attributes lack of home fire deaths to home sprinklers
Between 1988 and 2010, there were no fire deaths in certain Pennsylvania homes protected by home fire sprinklers.
The finding, detailed in the study "Communities With Home Fire Sprinklers: The Experience in Bucks County, Pennsylvania," is the latest analysis of life and building safety aspects of residential sprinklers. Commissioned by the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC), the study analyzed six municipalities in Bucks County that have implemented residential sprinkler ordinances. Comparing data of nearly 7,000 sprinklered homes with unsprinklered residences in Bucks County, researchers determined that there were 90 home fire fatalities and an average of $180,000 worth of damage per incident in unsprinklered homes. By comparison, sprinklered households resulted in zero deaths and an average of $14,000 in property damage per incident.
The report also mentions that nearly 6,000 gallons of water used during firefighter operations, on average, were needed to extinguish fires in unsprinklered homes, versus an average of 340 gallons discharged from sprinkler systems for sprinklered houses.
"This new data adds to our collection of educational materials that help improve and increase the public’s knowledge about the extreme danger of home fires and the lifesaving value of installing fire sprinklers," says Gary Keith, HFSC’s chair and NFPA’s vice president of Field Operations and Education.
HFSC has previously published case studies from other U.S. cities, including Prince George’s County, Maryland, and Scottsdale, Arizona, that highlight data similar to findings in the Pennsylvania study. Download all HFSC reports at homefiresprinkler.org.
— Fred Durso, Jr.
Columbia University student Andy Nguyen of Tampa, Florida, recently won the College Fire Safety Video Contest, developed by NFPA and the Center for Campus Fire Safety (CCFS). Nguyen’s video, "College Fire Safety Tips," beat out the entries of 10 other finalists who created 30- or 60-second videos on the importance of fire safety.
CAMPUS FIRE SAFETY
THAT OL’ COLLEGE TRY
"I was so excited to hear that I won and that all the hard work paid off," Nguyen says. "We are grateful for the opportunity and look forward to seeing our video influence other young people out there who are learning fire safety for the first time."
Katelyn Watkinson, a Vancouver Island University student from Nanaimo, British Columbia, was runner-up, and Anthony Gentiles, a Northeastern University student from Lowell, Massachusetts, placed third. Winners received Amazon.com gift cards and the chance for their videos to appear as public service announcements in markets where their schools and hometowns are located.
Initiative Addresses Winter Fires
NFPA and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) have joined forces for the "Put a Freeze on Winter Fires" initiative, which offers home safety tips to the public during a season when home fires are most prevalent. "Winter brings the highest number of home fires, more than any other time of year," said USFA’s Deputy Fire Administrator Glenn Gaines. "Home fires increase in part due to cooking and heating. Winter storms can also interrupt electrical service and cause people to turn to alternative heating sources that contribute to the increased risk."
According to USFA’s "Winter Residential Building Fires" report, an estimated 108,400 residential building fires occur in the U.S. each winter, resulting in 945 deaths, 3,825 injuries, and $1.7 billion in property loss. Cooking is the leading cause of winter residential building fires. For more information, visit nfpa.org/winter.
FPRF Examines Ambulance Crash Data, Cooking Fires
The Fire Protection Research Foundation’s recent report, "Analysis of Ambulance Crash Data," examines reportable ambulance crashes in the U.S. that cause vehicular property damage and injury to EMS crews or others. Included in the report are recommendations for developing a more comprehensive national data collection system to improve EMS safety. Information on ambulance accidents was requested by the NFPA 1917, Automotive Ambulances, Technical Committee to assist in identifying efforts that would have a positive impact on responder safety. NFPA has participated in a number of EMS-related efforts to develop a national standard for ambulance safety.
The Foundation also released "Home Cooking Fire Mitigation: Technology Assessment," a report that addresses methods to reduce death, injury, and property loss from home cooking fires. Commissioned by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the study identifies major cooking fire scenarios and focuses on the types of prevention technologies suitable for home cooking appliances. Cooking equipment fires are the leading cause of U.S. fire loss, accounting for 84 percent of deaths and 77 percent of injuries from 2005 to 2009. Both reports can be downloaded at nfpa.org/foundation.
Report: High-Rise Fires Trending Downward
The risks of fire, fire death, and direct property damage from fire tend to be lower in high-rise buildings than in shorter buildings of the same property use. Despite this finding, published in NFPA’s new report "High-Rise Building Fires," data also indicates that an average of 15,700 reported fires occurred in these structures annually, with an annual average of $235 million in direct property damage from 2005 to 2009
The report also cites apartments, hotels, offices, and facilities that care for the sick as accounting for roughly half of all high-rise fires, which resulted in $99 million in direct property damage per year. Download the report at nfpa.org/research.
Wildfire: Fire Adapted Communities news; Haynes Joins Firewise
NFPA has established a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to develop a Fire Adapted Communities™ initiative to raise wildfire risk awareness among the public and to encourage planning for living safely in high-risk areas.
The project includes the development of a website, fireadapted.org, that will draw on existing wildland fire safety resources and successful programs to emphasize the importance of being, and how to become, a fire adapted community. NFPA is collaborating with eight additional organizations that will also provide content for the new site, which will launch this spring.
In other NFPA wildfire news, Hylton Haynes has been named associate project manager of the Firewise® Communities Program. Haynes will assist NFPA in engaging state and local governments and residents about Firewise programs and wildfire safety issues.
A native of South Africa, Haynes has worked for the New England Forestry Foundation and the Commonwealth of Virginia and has extensive wildland firefighting experience.