Don’t Be Like the Cow
Recalling a Fire Prevention Week message from 1925.
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2009
Back in 1925, it was the cow that took the heat.
That was the year NFPA published its first Fire Prevention Week brochure, “What Would Fire Mean to You?,” which urged Americans to stop fires before they start—or at least keep them from spreading. Calling Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, on which the Great Chicago Fire of October 9, 1871, was blamed, a symbol “of our everyday carelessness, which now costs 15,000 lives and a half billion dollars,” the brochure warned that being insured is no excuse for complacency.
Every year since 1925, the President of the United States has signed a proclamation pronouncing the week containing October 9 as a week of national observance. Fire Prevention Week has been observed in the United States and Canada annually since 1922. The forerunner of Fire Prevention Week was Fire Prevention Day, which began in the United States on October 9, 1911, as the brainchild of the Fire Marshals Association of North America, now the International Fire Marshals Association, which considered the 40th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire an appropriate moment to make the public aware of the need for fire prevention. In 1916, NFPA formed the Committee on Fire Prevention Day, which persuaded President Woodrow Wilson to issue the first National Fire Prevention Day proclamation in 1920. Two years later, the entire week containing Fire Prevention Day was officially proclaimed Fire Prevention Week.
The 1925 NFPA brochure likens insurance premiums to a concealed tax citizens pay on fire damage, and notes that insurance companies distributed more than $600 million to those who lost property to fire in the United States and Canada in 1924. Why gamble with your priceless possessions, the brochure asks; you can use insurance money to rebuild your house, but you can’t use it to replace your family, your family treasures, or your job.
Eight decades later, we’re still focused on keeping our homes and families safe from fire—and we’ve made progress. In 1925, fire killed 15,000 people; by 2007, the number had dropped to an estimated 3,340. The numbers speak for themselves.
— Kathleen Robinson