AMERICA BURNING 1973–2013
Work in Progress
On the 40th anniversary of its publication, a look at how the landmark America Burning report helped transform fire and life safety in the United States — and the challenges that remain
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2013
By Marty Ahrens
On May 4, 1973, the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control delivered its final report to President Richard M. Nixon. The report, two years in the making, was called America Burning (PDF, 7.5MB) and it offered a comprehensive look at the nation’s fire problem as well as recommendations for reducing fire losses.
Above all, it was unsparing in its assessments and unafraid to buttress its recommendations with moral purpose. “Appallingly, the richest and most technologically advanced nation in the world leads all the major industrialized countries in per capita deaths and property loss from fire,” the report’s authors wrote in its opening pages, establishing the tone for much of America Burning. “America’s poor fire record, and its failure to marshal enough scientific and monetary resources to improve the record, concerns those who work in the field of fire protection.”
America Burning transformed our perceptions of fire loss, fire safety, and fire protection as no other document ever had, and its impact is still being felt 40 years after its creation. The formation of the U.S. Fire Administration, the National Fire Academy, and the National Fire Incident Reporting System were just a few of the outcomes of the America Burning recommendations, which placed a heavy emphasis on federal support for local fire service efforts. The report’s authors believed that a 50 percent reduction in fire deaths, injuries, and property loss was possible within a generation.
For all of the rallying cries contained in America Burning, though, the country continues to wrestle with a persistent fire problem. Compared to the rest of the industrialized world, the U.S. still has an above-average fire death rate. Public education on fire risk remains a challenge, as does the struggle to maintain federal resources in support of local firefighting efforts. The fire threat posed by the growing wildland/urban interface is becoming one of the nation’s most urgent public safety concerns.
On this anniversary of America Burning, though, it is important to remember the legacy of this important document, and how, in spite of our ongoing challenges, it has helped make us safer.
Increased federal involvement
America Burning had its roots in the 1968 Fire Research and Safety Act, passed by Congress and enacted by President Lyndon Johnson. The act called for the presidential appointment of a 20-member panel, known as the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control, that would assess the country’s fire problem and make recommendations to address contributing issues. A panel representing an array of stakeholders — insurers, firefighters, researchers, standards developers, and more — was appointed by Nixon in 1971 and included Percy Bugbee, NFPA’s former general manager and CEO who at the time served as the organization’s honorary chairman.
The commission was charged with finding “predictable and effective measures for reducing the destructive effects of fire throughout the country.” It sought to define the problems, identify what was known and where the gaps were, and develop recommendations to move forward, all on a national scale. The commission’s report was based on its own research, as well as on the testimony received at public hearings held across the country. America Burning acknowledged that local governments bore, and should continue to bear, the brunt of protecting people from fire. It also defined a range of appropriate new federal roles, and explained why they were needed and how they should be created. The federal government, according to the commission, should provide technical and educational assistance to local and state authorities, collect and analyze fire information, regulate material flammability, and provide financial assistance when necessary. It also called for improved communication across the disciplines involved in fire safety, and for more and better data to help protect the citizenry and firefighters from the ravages of fire.
The commission listed 90 specific recommendations in its report, and at the top of the list was a fire-focused federal agency to serve the needs of local fire departments. At the time, a hodge-podge of stakeholders — various federal agencies, state and local governments, academic institutions, non-profits, and private organizations — was conducting research, issuing regulations, and establishing best practices and safety requirements. No single entity was monitoring or coordinating all this activity, however, and local fire departments had no formal representation in the federal government.
In 1974, the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration (NFPCA) was established in the Department of Commerce, and was renamed the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) in 1978. In 1979, it was placed under the new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The USFA has undertaken a critical leadership role on an array of fire issues, and by partnering with public, private, and non-profit organizations it has increased the resources available for its multifaceted mission. The Congressional Fire Services Caucus, a nonpartisan group of more than 320 members pledging support for policies that benefit the fire service, was created in 1987. The caucus and its companion organization, the Congressional Fire Services Institute, which educates members of Congress on fire and life safety issues, have reinforced the USFA mission and organized support for its activities. The USFA has survived repeated attempts to slash or even eliminate its budget, and continues to lead the fire community and provide a federal fire focus.
The same 1974 act that created the NFPCA also created the National Fire Academy (NFA). As part of the USFA, the NFA provides advanced training for fire officers and to help state and local governments with their training programs. Since its inception, the NFA has trained hundreds of thousands of first responders at its Maryland campus and around the country. The academy’s executive fire officer (EFO) program offers graduate-level training in fire department management to chiefs and future chiefs, and its Learning Resource Center (lrc.fema.gov) includes an extensive library and an on-line bibliographic database of materials of interest to the fire service.
Improved understanding of the fire problem
Forty years ago, we knew little about the many factors contributing to the nation’s fire problem. The commission proposed the creation of a uniform fire reporting system that would be required for all jurisdictions with federal support of fire service programs limited to participating jurisdictions. The recommendation led to the creation of the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) in 1977, as part of the NFPCA. NFIRS was designed as a tool to collect and analyze data about the size, patterns, trends, and characteristics of the nation’s fire problem, and would facilitate uniform state and local fire data reporting and analysis.
The first Fire in the United States report, published by the USFA in 1978, had to use the data that was available, which was limited to California and Ohio. To get more comprehensive data, the USFA promoted the newly created NFIRS to states and local fire departments across the country. Instead of a federal requirement for NFIRS participation, state fire authorities were allowed to set their own policies and requirements for NFIRS participation. States were given grants and mainframe software to help establish the system. National fire data analysts from the USFA, NFPA, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission developed a standard methodology to estimate the size of specific fire problems by using NFIRS data together with the sample-based NFPA fire department experience survey. The result was a collection of national estimates of the fire problem with more detail and quality than ever before. Today, about 23,000 fire departments from all 50 states participate in NFIRS, and the system is used in most of NFPAs statistical reports. While far from perfect, NFIRS remains the largest and most detailed fire incident reporting system in the world.
Several projects are underway to improve quality and breadth of data available. The National Association of State Fire Marshals’ Fire Research and Education Foundation recently received a FEMA Assistance to Fire Fighters Fire Prevention and Safety Grant, and is investigating why NFIRS data has so many unknown or unreported entries. Another current grant supports the efforts of Emergency Performance, Inc., and a team from the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), International Association of Fire Chiefs, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Commission on Fire Accreditation International to develop a National Fire Operations Reporting System to help fire departments track performance at structure fires. For example, sensors could record how much water was used, and when, during a fire event. Such a system would help with performance measures and quantify the impact of different approaches and resource configurations on ultimate fire size, property damage, and civilian and firefighter casualties.
The National Bureau of Standards (NBS), which was renamed NIST in 1988, was already conducting research on fire behavior in the early 1970s. The authors of America Burning recommended that efforts by NBS and the National Science Foundation be expanded to improve test methods and better understand occupancy fuel loads. This led to the creation of the Center for Fire Research at NBS in 1974. Today, NIST’s fire.gov promotes better fire safety and firefighting through research into fire behavior, tactics, firefighter safety, equipment, and more. NIST and the IAFF are also working together to study the impact of different patterns of firefighter deployment on firefighter and occupant safety. The report on experiments involving a two-story residential structure was released in 2010, and a project is currently underway to study deployment at a high-rise building. Projects such as these are vital to our understanding of how best to fight fire, and inform NFPA standards while helping fire departments and communities understand the potential impact of reduced firefighting resources.
Federal support to improve local fire safety
In addition to supporting local efforts with its proposal of the USFA and the National Fire Academy, the commission also recommended that grants be provided to help communities “develop comprehensive fire protection plans, improve firefighting equipment, and upgrade education of fire service personnel.” This included expanding fire detection in the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Agriculture’s activities in rural fire protection.
Over the past few decades, both the Center for Disease Control and Injury Prevention and the USFA have funded numerous smoke alarm installation programs. In recent years, FEMA has distributed Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grants to help local fire departments meet staffing, response and operational standards. FEMAs Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (AFG) helps fire departments obtain essential protective equipment, emergency vehicles, gear, and training to protect both the public and emergency personnel.
The commission called for a “continuing study of equipment needs of the fire service,” an effort that is ongoing. From 2001 to 2010, NFPA conducted three in-depth special surveys of fire department needs, covering the resources identified in America Burning — including trained staff, apparatus, and protective gear — as well as the additional resources necessary to respond to a unique event like the 9/11 attacks, which took place while the first survey was being conducted. These studies showed that there are extensive needs for every type of resource, and the smaller the community, the greater the needs tend to be.
Additional analysis showed that the AFG grants were well targeted to department needs and were associated with significant progress from survey to survey in reducing those needs. Even so, the needs remain great, and equipment is continually aging and in need of replacement. Ongoing financial support at the federal level is essential if every citizen is to be protected by a fire department ready to respond safely and effectively to any type of emergency.
Vision 20/20, an ongoing project (strategicfire.org) initiated in 2006 by the Institution of Fire Engineers – U.S. Branch and funded by several AFG grants, brought together fire service and fire safety experts to identify fire prevention issues that had not yet been addressed. Among other things, the project has focused on creating advocacy tools to help local fire prevention programs obtain support for their efforts; creating a coalition of organizations to support a national public education/social marketing campaign for fire safety; and demonstrating effective community risk reduction programs.
Increased adoption and enforcement of codes and standards
While many recommendations were geared to the fire service, the commissioners also recognized the need for regulatory action and safer building design, with special attention paid to enforcing safety requirements for vulnerable populations. They encouraged the NBS to work with NFPA on a systems approach to building fire safety, and they urged the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to prioritize work with products that frequently cause burns and on combustion hazards associated with materials.
Today, the CPSC has mandatory requirements on clothing and mattress flammability and voluntary requirements on upholstered furniture, which remains the leading item first ignited in home fires and a frequent secondary fuel. Efforts are currently underway to find the safest ways to reduce the risk from fire while also minimizing any health or environmental risks from exposure to the various fire retardants. Since 1994, the CPSC has required most lighters to be inoperable by young children. Legislation in all 50 states now requires cigarettes to have a lower likelihood of starting a fire.
All local jurisdictions were encouraged to have and enforce an adequate building or fire prevention code that included requirements for residential smoke alarms. The USFA commissioned its first survey of home fire alarm prevalence, and found that in 1977 only 22 percent of U.S. homes had one or more fire or smoke alarm. As of 2010, 96 percent of households surveyed for NFPA reported at least one smoke alarm. Even so, many households do not yet have all the smoke alarms they need for full effectiveness and current code compliance, such as interconnected smoke alarms on every level and in every sleeping area.
In an effort to get more enforcers on technical committees, NFPA is now reimbursing eligible enforcers for 80 percent of their customary travel expenses. The IAFF has been developing training materials to help line firefighters participate in the codes and standards process. A number of NFA courses and related trainings address materials covered in NFPA codes and standards.
While much progress has been made, some federal agencies that reference consensus codes and standards have not kept current with the latest standards. Some states also skip code cycles, sometimes several cycles at a time. With the rapid changes taking place in fire and life safety, failing to keep regulations abreast of current safety requirements can put the public at unnecessary risk.
Educating the public
Commissioners recommended an assortment of public education activities, including fire safety education in schools, home fire inspections, and exit drills in the home. The USFA would develop materials, assist with fire safety education, and conduct public service advertising. (Some of the outcomes can be seen at usfa.fema.gov/citizens/.) NFPA and USFA have partnered on a number of fire safety campaigns. NFPA 1452, Guide for Training Fire Service Personnel to Conduct Dwelling Fire Safety Surveys, was created for home fire inspections, and NFPA’s Public Education division has created a home fire inspection survey to support the guide. Operation EDITH (Exit Drills In The Home) is a part of every NFPA Fire Prevention Week campaign, and is stressed throughout the year. NFPA has developed fire safety programs for children, families, older adults, immigrant communities, and many others.
The commission also urged the USFA to support “improved automatic extinguishing systems that would find ready acceptance by Americans in all kinds of dwelling units.” The technology is here, and NFPA’s Home Fire Sprinkler Initiative is continuing the push to require sprinklers in all new one- and two-family dwellings across the country.
America Burning also recommended that the USFA work with the Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help prevent forest and grassland fires. Today, NFPA’s Firewise and Fire Adapted Communities programs combine expertise from a variety of agencies and organizations in that effort.
Looking back 40 years, it’s clear that real progress has been made to fight the fire problem. Death certificate data published in the National Safety Council’s Injury Facts report show that unintentional fire deaths went from 6,503 in 1973 to 3,200 in 2009, a decrease of 51 percent. The unintentional death rate per 100,000 population dropped from 3.1 in 1973 to 1.0 in 2009. In his transmittal letter to President Nixon, the commission’s chair, Richard Bland, an associate professor at Penn State, wrote that the America Burning recommendations emphasized “prevention of fire through implementation of local programs [and] built-in fire safety — measures which and detect and extinguish fire before it grows large enough to cause a major disaster.” Today, most homes have at least one smoke alarm.
Even so, we continue to lose too many people to fire. The U.S. still has a fire death rate higher than many industrialized countries, according to 2007–2009 data compiled by the Geneva Association’s World Fire Statistics, though it has moved closer to the middle of the list rather than topping it. More homes are sprinklered now than in the past — the percentage of reported fires in homes with sprinklers increased from one percent in 1980–1984 to six percent in 2006–2010 — but it’s still not enough. Despite the presence of smoke alarms in an overwhelming percentage of American homes, three out of five fire deaths result from fires in which no smoke alarm was present or none operated. Most homes still do not have the interconnected smoke alarms, which increase the likelihood that all occupants in a home will hear the early warning.
New challenges continue to arise as well. Issues related to electric-powered vehicles and charging stations, a move toward lightweight, faster-burning building materials in the construction industry, and the rapid growth of development in wildfire-prone areas require new approaches to fire safety, firefighting, and planning. Fire departments are trying to determine how to handle the chronic problem of unwanted fire alarms and the associated issue of a public that too often does not take fire alarms seriously. Fire and first-responder budgets shrink as fire departments are called upon to do much more than fight fires. In 2011, two-thirds of fire department responses nationwide were to medical aid calls.
That’s why resources like the USFA, National Fire Academy, and the Assistance to Firefighter Grants are so vital for local fire departments. The research done or sponsored by USFA, FEMA, and NIST provides essential information to codes and standards organizations, fire protection engineers, and others, but the latest budgetary squeeze, sequestration, is making it difficult for these agencies to continue their high levels of service and leadership. We also still see major gaps in understanding different aspects of fire safety. For example, building designers may not always understand the space required for effective firefighting. Smoke detector manufacturers see equipment that operates in response to a legitimate trigger as functioning properly, while fire departments are frustrated when they respond to alarms where there are no fires. Property managers change the usage of space without considering the fire protection needs of the new arrangements. More and better fire data would also help; the current version of NFIRS was released in 1999, and it’s time for a thorough evaluation and update.
The USFA has recently adopted a new rallying cry of “fire is everyone’s fight,” a slogan that underscores the opening line of America Burning: “The striking aspect of the Nation’s fire problem is the indifference with which Americans confront the subject.” As the USFA says, we rely on the fire service to fight fires once they occur, but the prevention of fires is up to all of us.
Marty Ahrens is a senior manager in the Fire Analysis & Research Division at NFPA.