Mr. Fire Prevention
Remembering Percy Bugbee
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2008
NFPA Journal regrets to announce that Mr. Cote has decided to retire his Looking Back column to pursue other opportunities. We will miss his contribution greatly and we wish him well as he moves on to his next challenge.
Percy "Perk" Bugbee graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1920 and joined NFPA in 1921 as its third paid employee. He spent his first few years at NFPA learning the intricacies of fire protection and prevention, which included conducting a statistical analysis of the fire records the Association had compiled since 1897.
As early as 1914, Managing Director Franklin Wentworth saw NFPA needed a greater presence locally to provide technical knowledge, practical fire prevention, and community outreach. In 1924, NFPA obtained the necessary funding, and Bugbee became NFPA’s first field secretary. For the next 15 years, he crisscrossed the United States spreading NFPA’s fire-safety messages and building ties with fire service and political and community leaders.
Although an engineer, Bugbee came to believe that technology alone could not bring about a fire-safe world. Seeing that preventing unsafe acts through fire prevention education was also necessary, he was among the first to advocate fire prevention inspections by fire departments and the establishment of fire prevention bureaus within fire departments. He also championed fire department dwelling inspections and strongly supported the adoption of fire prevention codes. Along with NFPA Chief Engineer Ray Bond, he prepared material explaining how NFPA standards could be used in a fire prevention code for cities in 1929. In 1935, the two prepared another report explaining how a fire prevention code and a building code could be used together.
In 1927, the Fire Marshals Association of North America (FMANA) became an NFPA section, and in 1930, Bugbee was appointed its executive secretary, a post he held for 13 years. Under his leadership, fire marshals pushed for the adoption of FMANA’s model arson law. In 1927, only two states had adopted the law. By 1940, the number had reached 39.
In 1950, Bugbee would support the formation of another NFPA section, the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, and become its first member.
In 1936, at the request of the International City Managers Association, Bugbee and Bond collabored on the book Municipal Fire Administration, which covered fire department organization and operation. This book set the standard for many fire department practices throughout North America.
Upon Wentworth’s retirement in 1939, the 40-year-old Bugbee, who had been promoted to assistant managing director in 1928, became NFPA’s second general manager. In this role, he continued his crusade for public fire prevention education, noting in his book Men Against Fire that "a large proportion of the deaths and injuries and property losses from fire are brought about by an unending repetition of simple well-known common fire hazards." He was particularly struck by the hazards of the unsafe use and disposal of lighted matches and cigarettes, launching the first of many public education campaigns about the safe use of smoking materials. This effort continues, and NFPA’s advocacy has helped pass legislation requiring fire-safe cigarettes in 38 states.
Bugbee was not easily swayed by those who would press NFPA to withhold or water down its fire reports. When the attorney general of Massachusetts ordered NFPA not to release its report on the 1942 Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire, Bugbee convinced him that providing the information would save lives.
During WWII, Bugbee contributed to the war effort by chairing the Industrial Advisory Committee of the Office of Civilian Defense. As a member of the Advisory Board on Fire Protection to the Undersecretary of War, he pointed out the danger of storing virtually all the nation’s natural rubber in one supply depot, risking its destruction in one fire, and convinced the undersecretary to disperse rubber storage.
Believing that NFPA’s knowledge could be applied internationally, he and George Tryon traveled to England, France, Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden in 1955, the first NFPA officers to make a professional call these sister organizations. A decade later, Bugbee proposed forming a Conference of Fire Protection Associations (CFPA), and its first meeting took place in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1966. Today, CFPA, now known as the Confederation of Fire Protection Associations International (CFPA-I), has 25 member countries that meet every three years.
When Perk Bugbee retired in 1969, he had served NFPA for nearly a half-century and was made honorary chairman of the Board. During his three-decade tenure, Association membership grew five-fold to 25,000 members and became the authoritative voice for fire prevention throughout North America.
Art Cote, P.E., FSFPE, is NFPA’s former executive vice-president and chief engineer.