The long view of progress
Looking at the problem historically, there can be no other conclusion than momentum is on our side.
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2010
Recently I came across an NFPA booklet about home fire safety that was published in 1979. When I looked through it several thoughts came to mind. The first was how consistent our messages to the public have been over the years. From developing plans for safe evacuation of homes when fire strikes, to safe cooking tips, use of space heaters, and stop drop and roll, NFPA has hammered away year in and year out for decades fighting the battle to reduce deaths and injuries from fire. While perseverance should be viewed as admirable, looking at that old publication also made me feel a little discouraged.
Shouldn't we have long ago gotten the public to the point where the basic rules of home fire safety would be generally understood? Of course, that's not the way it works. One of our strongest attributes as an organization is that we stick with the fight. We are willing to take a long view. We understand that the day when we will be able to declare complete victory in our battle to protect the public from fire, electrical, and other hazards might never come, but even incremental progress is measured in lives saved.
But that doesn't mean we aren't succeeding. In the 1979 booklet, we said that more than 7,800 people had died in fires in the United States in the previous year. NFPA's latest statistics, for 2008, put the number of people killed in fires nationwide at 3,320.
There are other very encouraging signs from around the country. In a year-end roundup, the State Fire Marshal in Massachusetts reported that 2009 had the fewest fire deaths in decades of keeping records, and that the City of Boston went through the entire year without a single fire death. The New York Times recently reported that New York City had fewer fire deaths in 2009 than at any time since the city began keeping records in 1915. The City of Philadelphia had fewer fire deaths than ever before in history. It will take a little longer to get a comprehensive view of last year's national statistics, but we are hearing of the same sort of progress all across the country. All of us who are involved in the fight for fire safety should feel encouraged by these remarkable numbers. It has occurred not because of one strategy, but because we have attacked various aspects of the problem aggressively in a coordinated way in the last decades.
The tremendous push to require smoke alarms in all residences and the constant repetition of the need to make sure they are operational has surely been a significant factor. So have public education programs-especially where fire departments make them a priority-which are reaching more people and more vulnerable populations. The value of tried and true methods like home fire escape planning cannot be overstated. NFPA's Public Education Division works closely with fire departments in large urban areas to find new ways to reach people with the most effective safety messages. And fire-safe cigarettes are starting to make a difference. Because the implementation dates have been rolling out gradually over the last few years, it is hard to isolate the effect of this change; data from jurisdictions where the law was adopted early are encouraging, however, and we think this will prove to be a powerful weapon in our battle against fire deaths.
These are just some of the efforts that have been made to bring about this sharp reduction in fire deaths. It is frustrating that the United States still has one of the worst fire death records among industrialized nations, but it is indisputable that the overall assault on fire deaths has had an enormous effect. Tens of thousands of people who would have perished in fires are alive today because of all that work.
Looking at the problem historically, there can be no other conclusion than momentum is on our side. Continuing the progress toward the total elimination of fire deaths depends on our recommitting ourselves to all those strategies that have brought about such dramatic results, and being bold enough to take on challenges that we used to think were unachievable.
As I write this, California has adopted a statewide sprinkler requirement for one-and two-family homes, and a number of other states are in the process of taking decisive action in that direction. The next dramatic step in fire safety is already well underway.