AUTHOR: Angelo Verzoni

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Year in Review: NFPA Journal staff picks and most-viewed articles from 2019

As 2019 comes to a close, the NFPA Journal editorial staff has each chosen his favorite articles from the past year. From a moving piece on violence against EMS workers that warranted an angry blue fist trying to punch its way out of the magazine cover to a story about a booming new gaming industry, here are our picks—as well as the ones that were most popular based on website page views.   Executive Editor Scott Sutherland's top picks: "After Effect," November/December; "Big Assist," July/August; "135 Minutes," January/February   This the second year that Journal staff has forced itself to pick its favorite stories of the year. As I observed the first time around, it's a very difficult task, and having done it once doesn't make it any easier. I still think the task is somehow fundamentally unfair. But I've squared my shoulders, taken a deep breath, and picked three of my favorites for 2019—in part because each of them came from sources outside the immediate Journal staff and contributors. My mantra is that it takes a village to construct a magazine like NFPA Journal every eight weeks, and the stories described here illustrate the breadth and depth of the topics that outside contributors can provide. In no particular order: "After Effect," by Matthew Foley, November/December. This was our cover story marking the 20th anniversary of the Worcester Cold Storage fire, a blaze that killed six firefighters and generated long-lasting repercussions through the fire service and the fire research community. It also had a lasting impact of sorts on Matt, who was 6 years old when he observed the fire from his family's car, en route to a birthday dinner for his mother. The fire would shape both his education and his career, and Matt—now a research associate at NFPA—brought a first-person aspect to the story that was both meaningful and engaging. The story is among the year's most-read on nfpa.org/journal. "Big Assist," by Robert Duval, July/August. Another cover story, this one took an up-close look at the importance of incident command and regional mutual aid in dealing with a large-scale disaster. The disaster in question was a series of natural gas fires and explosions that rocked three communities in Massachusetts in 2018, and the scale of the response, coupled with the chaos of the event, produced a highly complex and challenging theater of operations. Bob's account for Journal, which included insight from the three chiefs directly involved, managed to be both instructional and engaging—a mutual-aid how-to that kept readers on the edges of their seats. "135 Minutes," by Ryan Ashlock, January/February. Ashlock went to work on November 8, 2018, like any other day. Except that his place of work was Feather River Hospital, in Paradise, California, and the just-ignited Camp Fire was exploding out of a ravine on the edge of town as he was pulling into the hospital's parking lot. Ashlock, the hospital's chief financial officer, was "administrator on call" that morning, and as a result assumed a key role in keeping patients and staff safe. "135 Minutes" is his gripping, minute-by-minute Perspectives account of evacuating the hospital's campus with virtually no notice. Ashlock's story is among the most compelling Camp Fire accounts I've read, and I'm grateful that he was willing to share it with us. Associate Editor Jesse Roman's top picks: "Front & Center," May/June; "The Toll of Violence," January/February Looking back at the stories I wrote and reported on in 2019, it feels impossible to pick a favorite between two profoundly different pieces: "Front & Center," a profile of Fire Chief Charles Hood of the San Antonio Fire Department, and "The Toll of Violence," an expose on the shocking levels of violence committed against EMTs and paramedics. The former is an uplifting tale about selfless leadership and an unwavering commitment to excellence, and the latter a heartbreaking example of everything wrong with this world. Following around Hood, as I did for two days last March, the thing that quickly became clear is that he is a leader of uncommon energy and devotion to his troops. Like a magic trick, he seems to know the names of every one of the thousands of firefighters under his watch—and often their spouses' and children's names, too—and treats his obligations to them as the most important thing you can imagine. After riding with Hood for two straight days, I was admittedly exhausted—not by the hours he keeps, but by the constant swirl of activity. He is always on, always smiling, and engaging each person in his orbit with his utmost attention. It was like watching a figure skater perform an Olympic level routine; I saw it happening, but couldn't imagine how someone could do it. And so, on the last day I asked him an objectively stupid question, but one I can't help: Does he ever get tired? I remember him grinning and he confirmed that yes, he's human, but then said something I didn't expect. This isn't an optional part of his job—it is the job. "It takes energy to be a leader, you can't sit around and be invisible. I have to talk with and engage every single person I see," he said, looking me square in the eye. "I may not like all of my firefighters or all of my civilians, in most cases I do, but as a leader of this organization I have to love them. Love is consistent. Love is fair. Love understands the dignity of a human being. If I walked around here all pissed off, not talking to people, treating them like shit, I still may have this job, but you would not be sitting here talking to me, or wanting to talk about our programs or efficiencies. You wouldn't be here, because unless you are investing in the people, nothing gets done. You invest in the people and the people invest in the fire department. I value the people I work with and I think it shows, and I think they know that I care about them, that I'm not just in it for me. I'd have it no other way. I only know one way to be." As inspiring as being around Hood was, the inverse was true as I did my reporting for "The Toll of Violence." Listening to EMTs tell me about the violent indignities they suffer at the hands of those they are selflessly trying to help, made me feel hopeless. "I have been kicked, punched, bitten, spit on, verbally abused. You name it, I've had it all," one EMT said in a survey. The thing that struck me was how open and willing these EMTs were to discuss their abuse. It was like they had been just waiting for someone to ask. This is a huge and underreported problem. These public servants mostly suffer in silence. I hope that the story was able in some small way to shed a light on this problem so that more can be done to protect them. Staff Writer Angelo Verzoni's top picks: "Safe Escape," July/August; "Ready for 'Action!'?" May/June  Some of my favorite stories to report on come together when the world of fire and life safety collides with the world of pop culture and social trends. I've written articles about Uber, Airbnb, NBC's hit TV show "This Is Us," and other topics you might not think fit into the mold of what NFPA is all about—but there are always connections to be made. Both of my picks for 2019, "Safe Escape" and "Ready for 'Action!'?" are further examples of this.  The first, "Safe Escape," chronicled the rise of a booming new gaming industry, escape rooms, and the concerns over escape room occupant safety, which were thrust into the international spotlight when in January 2019 five teenage girls died in a fire in an escape room in Poland. I had never done an escape room before reporting on this piece, so on a gray, drizzly afternoon in May, my girlfriend, her sister and brother-in-law, and I all packed inside an Uber to head to downtown Boston to see what all the buzz was about. We tried our luck inside the steampunk-decorated Clock Tower room at Escape the Room Boston. I, of course, was there to take notes—see if the exits were clearly marked, if there were sprinklers, if the doors were actually locked or if being locked in was simply an illusion. But I also had a genuinely fun time. In fact, my girlfriend and I are planning to do our third escape room in the next couple of weeks, when we head down to her family's house in North Carolina for Christmas. While I left the Boston escape room thinking, "That definitely seemed safe," I was later surprised to hear from my more technically minded colleagues at NFPA that the setup I encountered—a button that you need to press before the door of the escape room will unlock—is actually not compliant with NFPA 101, Life Safety Code. Turns out, the vast majority of escape rooms operating across the country are likely not in compliance with the code, and I was able to report on that somewhat troubling information in my piece.  My second-favorite piece from 2019 was the Dispatches lead item in the May/June issue, "Ready for 'Action!'?" Born out of a tragic incident in which a firefighter died responding to a blaze on a movie set in New York City in March 2018, the story dove deep into the world of fire safety on movie and TV sets—something I knew nothing about before writing it. An employee of NFPA for over two years at the time, I wasn't even aware that we have a standard on set safety, NFPA 140, Standard on Motion Picture and Television Production Studio Soundstages, Approved Production Facilities, and Production Locations! I walked away from my reporting with an entirely new understanding and appreciation for film and television set safety. "These aren't just movie or TV sets," a veteran of the set safety industry told me. "This is an industrial process and that requires all the necessary safety steps to be taken." What did readers think? Based on nfpa.org/journal page views, the top 10 most popular Journal articles in 2019 were as follows:    10. "Firefighter Fatalities in the United States in 2018," July/August  9. "Front & Center," May/June  8. "Mind the Gap," January/February  7. "Safe Escape," July/August  6. "Keeping Up With Technology," May/June  5. "Big Assist," July/August  4. "Ramp Risk," March/April  3. "Juice Box," May/June  2. "After Effect," November/December  1. "Power Aid," May/June  NFPA Journal will be back in 2020 with a brand-new issue featuring stories on electric vehicle fire safety, fires in international hospitals, the community health care model and NFPA 451, and more. In the meantime, check out our picks from last year.

Czech hospital shooting highlights occupancy risk, need for preparation

A view from inside a waiting room at University Hospital in Ostrava, Czech Republic, where Tuesday morning a gunman killed six people in the country's deadliest mass shooting since 2015. Image Capture: Aug 2017, Copyright 2017 Google     A shooting in a hospital waiting room in the city of Ostrava, Czech Republic, left six people dead this morning, the New York Times reported. The shooter, a 42-year-old man, killed himself as officers closed in. It was the deadliest shooting in the country since 2015, when a gunman killed eight at a restaurant. The incident highlights the risk of active shooter or other hostile events occurring in hospitals—something emergency management officials have been concerned over for some time. "We're wide open. We don't run you through a metal detector on the way in," Michael Marturano, safety officer for a health care system in Duluth, Minnesota, said of hospitals during a November 2017 interview with NFPA Journal. "Surgery's locked down, the birthing center is locked down, but the other 80 percent of the building is pretty open. You've got sales people coming in, family members coming in, you've got meetings with a lot of community folks, and they need to get in." My interview with Marturano served as the Perspectives article for the January/February issue of NFPA Journal. Our conversation covered the importance of preparing health care facilities for situations involving active shooters, some of the challenges involved with the training, and measures health care workers can take to stay safe in active shooter events. In the nearly three years since our interview, advancements in preparing for active shooter and other hostile events have been made—most notably, NFPA 3000 (PS), Standard for an Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response (ASHER) Program, was released in May 2018. But the risk of such an event occurring in a hospital has pretty much stayed in the same. In June 2017, a disgruntled doctor opened fire with an AR-15 at a hospital in New York City, killing one doctor and wounding six others. In November 2018, three people were killed in a mass shooting at Mercy Hospital in Chicago. Next month, the city of Augusta, Georgia, will embark on a yearlong journey to implement NFPA 3000 throughout its community, and the risk of a shooting occurring in one of the area's three hospitals will be a major consideration for project leaders. You'll be able to read more about this project when the January/February issue of NFPA Journal is published in the coming weeks. While active shooter events in hospitals aren't that common in the US—only seven occurred from 2000 to 2015, according to data from Texas State University's Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center—they can be a huge headache for hospital emergency planners, said John Montes, the NFPA staff liaison to NFPA 3000. "They have to worry about having an incident on their site, but they are also part of any incident that occurs in the area because they receive the victims," he said. "They are part of that recovery process and response process. It can be very complicated for them to plan."
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Could the US handle a tanker fire like the one in South Korea?

Over the weekend, an explosion and fire aboard the Stolt Groenland, a 25,000-tonne, Cayman Island–flagged oil tanker, left 10 people injured, one of them critically, Reuters recently reported. The blast and subsequent blaze occurred while the ship was docked at the Port of Ulsan in South Korea. The incident is exactly the type of scenario safety officials in the United States worry about. It also serves as a perfect illustration of the danger fires or explosions on large marine vessels pose, especially when those incidents occur when the ship is at or close to port. I explored this topic in detail for the cover story of the September/October 2019 issue of NFPA Journal, "Close Quarters."  "People have this misconception that if a fire or explosion happens on a boat, even in a port, it'll be contained," a Navy fire chief told me for the article. "But that's not necessarily true." The chief's words rang true during the incident in South Korea. The fire on the Stolt Groenland was so large that it spread to another, nearby ship, the 9,000-tonne, South Korean–flagged Bow Dalian. And most of the people who were injured were not even on board either of the ships when the fire broke out—they were workers at the terminal.  While the US has been fortunate to not have experienced a large ship fire or explosion at a port, officials I interviewed for the story pretty much unanimously agreed that if one did occur, many cities' local fire service wouldn't be prepared. "We've started to see ships that are a lot bigger than anything we're used to," a veteran marine firefighter told me. "These vessels are huge, and I don't think any major city, much less a smaller one, is truly prepared." The Agence France-Presse reported that South Korean firefighters "struggled to contain [Saturday's] blaze and prevent it from spreading." Still, all of the 25 people aboard the Stolt Groenland and the 21 aboard the Bow Dalian were rescued—and that represents one of the most difficult aspects of incidents like this, given ships' narrow passageways and limited access points. The cause of the explosion is under investigation, AFP said.

Journal NOW: After Jim Beam fire, read NFPA Journal's 2018 feature on keeping distilleries safe from fire

Last week, a massive fire tore through a Jim Beam warehouse in Kentucky, destroying 45,000 barrels of the company's whiskey. The blaze continued for days as barrels of the flammable liquid were purposefully allowed to burn to avoid further contaminating a nearby river by adding more water to the fire that could then run into the river, according to CNN. Officials say a lightning strike was likely the cause.  Similar scenarios have played out over the years in Kentucky. In 2003, a lightning strike at a Jim Beam warehouse in Bardstown, Kentucky, set the wood-frame structure ablaze and sent 800,000 gallons of flaming bourbon into a nearby retention pond. Seven years prior, a fire broke out at Heaven Hill Distillery, also located in Bardstown, and burning whiskey created what one employee described to the Kentucky Standard newspaper as "a river of fire." And in 2000, a fire at a Wild Turkey distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, destroyed nearly 1 million gallons of bourbon. I wrote about distillery fires and the resources that exist to protect these facilities from fire for the March/April 2018 edition of NFPA Journal.  While the piece—"Small Scale, High Proof"—largely focuses on the boom the United States has seen in recent years in small, craft distilling operations, the fire safety threats and fire protection concepts detailed in the story apply to any distillery, no matter how large or old. The article, for example, shows that hard liquor, usually 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) or higher, can give off enough vapor to ignite in air, at relatively low temperatures. It typically has a flashpoint of 79 degrees Fahrenheit, the article says, compared to pure ethyl alcohol with a flashpoint of 55 degrees F.  Read more at nfpa.org/safedistilling.
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Las Vegas: First responders need to work as a team, can't 'unsee' what they've seen

Photos courtesy of AP/Worldwide At least 59 people are dead and more than 500 are injured after a gunman perched on the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel opened fire on a crowd at an outdoor music festival. The Sunday night shooting is now the deadliest mass shooting the country has ever seen.   Reacting to the news, a SWAT captain and fire chief from two of America's largest cities stressed the importance of police, fire, and other emergency officials working together to plan for and respond to active shooter and other hostile events. The two authorities are part of a proactive group currently working to identify new ways to minimize the carnage that these tragic incidents inflict. Not only are active shooter events becoming more frequent in the United States, but the time it takes for a new shooting to become the deadliest in U.S. history is also shrinking. Forty-one years passed between the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting (32 killed) and the 1966 University of Texas clock tower shooting (16 killed), which previously held the record for the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. It was then nine years before the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando (49 killed) topped the Virginia Tech shooting. Sadly, only one year later, yesterday's shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival claims the record.    “It is the new normal,” said Jack Ewell, a police captain who commands special operations for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. “After each [active shooter event] we scrutinize the incident and try to learn and determine what additional measures we can put in place to try and stop them, and if we can't stop them, to minimize the casualties involved.” Ewell's department serves 10 million people scattered over 4,000 square miles of land and has already sent personnel to Las Vegas to assist with the city's recovery from the incident.    One of the additional measures that could be explored in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting is increasing security measures at hotels, such as searching baggage as guests check in, said Otto Drozd, the chief of Orange County Fire Rescue in Orlando, which responded to the Pulse nightclub shooting along with other local, state, and federal authorities. “If we had instituted something at hotels to check baggage, would it have prevented the Vegas incident?” Drozd asked himself after hearing about the news this morning. It would be a similar change to how security was ramped up at airports following 9/11.   Both Drozd and Ewell are members of the technical committee for NFPA 3000, Standard for Preparedness and Response to Active Shooter and/or Hostile Events. The committee has met twice so far, and the standard is slated to be released sometime late next year or in early 2019. An article on the development of the standard appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of NFPA Journal, along with a podcast on the topic. Additionally, at a meeting at NFPA's Massachusetts headquarters late last month, the Urban Fire Forum endorsed a position paper on preparedness and a unified response to hostile events, which references NFPA 3000.   What's critical is that the standard draws from the knowledge and experiences of every entity involved in responding to active shooter and other hostile events. “It's a cross functional standard which is unique,” said Drozd. “We have the perspective of law enforcement, fire, EMS, and hospitals at the local state, and federal level.” Although each entity takes on a different role during these events—for example, law enforcement initially must be focused on identifying and eliminating the threat, while fire and EMS are entirely focused on aiding victims—it's the interoperability of everybody involved that leads to a successful response. “We have to go at it as one team,” said Ewell. While Ewell's department already uses many of the best practices that will be outlined in NFPA 3000, he underscored the importance of the new standard so that first responders in all jurisdictions can be “working off the same sheet of music,” so to speak.    In Orlando, one key takeaway from the Pulse Nightclub shooting was the need to plan in advance for a designated, safe, and sufficiently sized site to house witnesses, less critically injured victims, and families of those affected. Drozd indicated that his city needed to relocate their staging area three or four times in the days that followed the shooting. Another lesson learned was the importance of quickly establishing a hotline for loved ones to call and inquire about victims. In Orlando, some families waited for days before learning the fate of club-goers. Las Vegas authorities quickly announced a number today for families, friends, and concert-goers to call with questions, concerns, and first-hand perspectives.   Beyond the operational aspects of active shooter and other hostile events that NFPA 3000 will address, it will also aim to shed light on the more lasting impacts these events can have on communities, such as the toll they take on first responders' behavioral health. “Some of the things that first responders see cannot be unseen,” said Drozd. “So while the community's recovery is a long, heartbreaking, and collaborative process, we should not lose sight of the tremendous toll that incidents like these can have on our first responders.”

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