Fire Safety and the Future
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2009
If we have learned nothing else in recent months from the economic turmoil facing the world, we have at least learned how difficult it is to predict the future. A look at stock market predictions, oil price forecasts, and economic prognostications by experts from a few months ago is humbling for anyone who thinks he has a grasp on what the economy is going to do next.
The uncertainties we face are no excuse for ignoring what is changing around us or for failing to plan for the consequences of those changes. In considering the fire safety problem and its future, the cost of paying too little attention to shifts that are already happening could be exorbitantly high in human life and property losses.
As I write, California has just experienced devastating wildfires around Los Angeles. The West has always had a problem with wildfires, but the problem is getting bigger, and we think we know why. Global warming has given us a string of some of the hottest years ever recorded, and the earlier snowmelts these temperatures cause have exacerbated the conditions that result in wildfires.
This problem is getting much worse. Over the last 30 years, there has been a 400 percent increase in wildfires, which represents a 700 percent increase in the area burned. Because of the excessively dry conditions, the fires get out of control much more quickly than they used to. California isn’t alone; this is a worldwide phenomenon. Huge wildfires have occurred recently in Siberia, Southern Europe, China, Australia, and many other countries.
We need to take note of what is clearly happening and start thinking about the implications for fire safety. We need to begin aggressively making the case for the additional resources, sounder policy planning, and new technological approaches that will keep this problem from becoming a catastrophe in the decades ahead. If we ignore the facts, we leave a huge problem for others to handle down the road.
We are in the midst of another tectonic shift that promises to have an equally large impact on fire protection. This one is demographic. The world population is aging quickly. In 2000, the number of people in the world aged 60 or older was estimated to be 605 million. That number is projected to grow to almost 2 billion by 2050, when the population of older persons will be greater than the population of children aged 14 and under for the first time in human history.
There can be no doubt that such an enormous explosion in the number of aged people, which in so many respects is good news, will bring with it a whole new set of concerns for the economy, for health care, and for fire and life safety. With millions more old people, the safety problems we will face will be far more complicated than they are today. If we are serious about being a community of professionals that drives the changes that will make the world safer, we cannot ignore the inexorable graying of the world’s population. We will only achieve a safer tomorrow if we plan for it today.
Recently, as part of its 25th anniversary celebration, the Fire Protection Research Foundation held a two-day symposium in Washington, D.C. The event, “Fire Protection and Safety: Preparing for the Next 25 Years,” brought together leaders in fire protection from across North America to discuss what the key fire protection issues are likely to be over the next quarter century. With the changes we know we will see in the coming years, events like the symposium are more important than ever.
It is encouraging that many of the key individuals and groups concerned with fire and life safety take seriously their responsibility to plan for the future.