AUTHOR: Meghan Housewright

State Policymaking Key to Widespread Adoption of Wildfire Mitigation and Hazard Reduction Measures

With wildfires slated to remain persistent and destructive, state governments must chart a course to risk reduction. The overwhelming nature of some recent fires, like California’s one million acre August Complex, means that course cannot simply rely on bumping up fire suppression efforts. Instead, communities in harm’s way urgently need changes to the built environment, resources for first responders, attention paid to the landscape, and a public that better understands how to reduce risk to their own homes. Bills that have been introduced in state legislatures so far this year show some policymakers are grappling with these goals. Fittingly, legislators in California are perhaps the boldest. According to researchers, over the past 50 years—excluding the last four—wildfires have cost that state roughly $1 billion per year, adjusted for inflation. For each of the last four years, that cost has jumped to at least $10 billion per year. SB 55 aims to cut down on new risk by calling for a construction moratorium in all high-risk areas. However, while we must stop adding to the problem, the bill doesn’t address the bulk of the risk—homes that already exist. Two other proposals, though, do attempt to address that risk. SB 12 would make a number of big changes to the state’s land use planning regime—requirements to push local governments to mitigate wildfire risk for both new and existing developments. In addition, it would enable Cal Fire to turn to certified third parties to assist with inspections and property assessments. Historically, Cal Fire has only been able to inspect a fraction of the properties within their jurisdiction. Boosting their capacity to educate, inspect, and enforce, especially with California’s new standards to clear flammable materials from the space immediately by the home, would greatly help their efforts to reduce risk. SB 63 would also help Cal Fire in their duties to educate the public and assess properties by allowing qualified entities to perform property assessments and report the data to the agency. And, it would expand the use of California’s wildfire building codes to areas beyond just those with the most severe risk. This, and SB 12’s requirement for Cal Fire to update maps that determine building code requirements, are necessary to provide an updated picture of risk in the state and to reflect the fact that some places that have burned recently, like Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park, did not appear on high severity zone maps. In Oregon, the legislature is set to consider wildfire legislation, too. Regrettably, Governor Kate Brown’s 2020 proposal for a robust wildfire building code program for the state did not advance. However, like last year, the proposal the Governor is expected to put forward this year will also direct the development of statewide maps of wildfire risk. That $50 million proposal would also spend $25 million on expanding the state’s firefighting capacity, but only $8 to $10 million on community mitigation programs. Legislative sessions are fleeting. It’s already mid-February and Oregon’s session will wrap up in June; California’s in September. Arizona, which also experienced one of its most active wildfire seasons in 2020, has taken scant legislative action to address the growing problem and its session will be over by the end of April. With millions of homes at risk across thousands of communities, mitigation will take time. But, as we learn more about how homes burn in the wildland/urban interface and how to prevent it, the time to start applying those lessons is now. State policymaking is key to widespread adoption of mitigation and hazard reduction measures. State lawmakers cannot afford to continue to set this topic aside. Learn more about issues related to wildfire preparedness policy on page 66 of the spring edition of NFPA Journal.
First responders

Shots All Around, but Healthcare Workers and Responders Deserve to be Served First

To great fanfare last week, the first doses of Coronavirus vaccines made their way into the arms of waiting healthcare workers. In Washington, DC, five of those doses went to first responders, including Lt. Keisha Jackson. She told reporters she was motivated in part to join the local trust-building effort because, “In the last nine months, I’ve seen Covid devastate my department,” as colleagues suffered from severe bouts of the disease. Throughout 2020, 911 calls have spiked with the virus, dispatching paramedics and firefighters to severely ill patients. Given their frontline role in communities, first responders’ duties have brought with them high rates of Coronavirus infections. From huge cities like New York, where one study found first responders tested positive at a rate 15 times higher than the general population, to small hamlets like Dakota City, Nebraska, where multiple members of the 20-strong volunteer fire department ended up sick after responding to an outbreak at the local meat-packing plant--first responders have been paying the price for their  pandemic-related positions. In their reporting on 1,500 healthcare workers who have died from Covid-19, Keiser Health News and the Guardian have also identified at least 100 firefighters who perished as a result of the virus. Are we surprised when we think about their roles and their work environments? Social distancing is simply impossible in the back of an ambulance or in a firehouse bunk room. These essential workers need protection. However, just when exactly that protection will arrive is still uncertain. Recommendations from expert panels have differed slightly. In September, a panel of experts from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine recommended firefighter and EMS personnel in the first tier for vaccination. More recent frameworks from the Center for Disease Controls Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices put EMS personnel in Tier 1a and firefighters in 1b, a distinction which fails to recognize that fire-based EMS serves well over half the U.S. population. Ultimately though, the distribution of the vaccine and decisions about prioritization are in the hands of the states. In their plans, some states have prioritized both EMS and fire service personnel with healthcare workers, ensuring early access to the vaccine, while others are grouping them in with other essential workers, like those in transportation, food production and distribution, and teachers. Understandably, these decisions are difficult ones to make, no town wants to find itself in a position where officials must close fire stations or lean on mutual aid for routine response because too many of its responders have been struck with the virus. Hollowed out emergency response is itself a safety hazard. To help make this point to state policymakers, NFPA, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and others have reached out to elected officials to explain the all-hazards role that responders have today. The IAFC has also encouraged its members to send letters to their governors and public health officials. We should all do our part to make decision-makers aware of the role that responders are playing during this pandemic and remind officials that the health of our first responders is critical for the safety of our communities. For more information about this effort, visit the IAFC blog.

California 2020 State Legislative Session for Wildfire: Some Wins While Others Measures Left in a Holding Pattern

Unlike the state's rough wildfire season, the end of California's 2020 legislative session is clearly in sight. This year, lawmakers considered a number of bills on the state's wildfire challenge. Among these were two measures aimed at strengthening California's defensible space requirements and helping Cal Fire assess properties and educate homeowners. One passed; the other did not.   Resurrected after a veto last year by the Governor, AB 3074 successfully passed to bring the concept of the home ignition zone to the state's current 100-foot defensible space requirements. The measure directs the State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection to promulgate regulations to require “more intense” fuel reduction efforts within 30-feet of a structure and an “ember-resistant zone” within 5-feet of a structure. Wind-driven embers are major culprits in home destruction during wildfire events. Reducing the risk of ignition by removing fuel sources from around the home will lower the risk of home loss during wildfires. While AB 3074 has been signed into law, there are still some bureaucratic hoops remaining. Most notably, the legislature needs to make sure all of it, the rulemaking, providing notice to property owners, and enforcement efforts, are funded in the annual budget process. However, strengthening these requirements for homes in at-risk areas is a big step in the right direction. The bill that did not make it over the legislative finish line was  SB 1348. Among other things, this measure would have established a program to recruit qualified entities to assist Cal Fire in its assessment and education efforts around home hardening and defensible space. According to an article last year from the San Diego Union-Tribune, annually, Cal Fire only has the capacity to inspect about 10 to 20 percent of the parcels within its jurisdiction for conformance with the state's defensible space rules. And, even where it finds violations, the agency prefers education over fines. Given that, training third parties to provide non-regulatory support through assessments and education has the potential to be an effective force-multiplier for the agency. This bill should be a priority item for the 2021 legislative session. In addition, lawmakers might also consider developing training and certification programs to create the trusted workforce needed to help property owners in implementing home-hardening measures, as well as meeting defensible space requirements. AB 3074—and hopefully soon the provisions of SB 1348—are modest steps toward addressing the state's massive wildfire challenge. Small steps can add up though, especially if they become part of a comprehensive plan. While COVID-fueled budget crises muted state legislative efforts to fund desperately needed mitigation efforts this year, with over four million acres burned in a single season, the urgency is growing for California. In 2021, lawmakers will need to be bold in their actions.   More information about the home ignition zone, defensible space, and related resources can be found on NFPA's wildfire webpage.
Oakland CA

As Oakland Reaches Settlement in Ghost Ship Fire, Cities Beware: More Tragedies are Inevitable if You Sleep Through the Alarm

Recently, utility company PG&E announced they had reached a settlement with victims' families and survivors of the Ghost Ship fire for an undisclosed amount. According to the plaintiffs, PG&E “knew or should have known” that the electrical connection and usage at the warehouse-turned artist collective were haphazard and unsafe. This comes on the heels of a $32.7 million-dollar settlement reached last month with the city of Oakland alleging roughly the same thing—that the city was aware of unsafe conditions but failed to act. The 2016 fire was a loud wake up call for Oakland, exposing weaknesses in fire safety enforcement that contributed to the deaths of 36 people. However, given that these weaknesses live in other cities too, more tragedies are waiting if others sleep through the alarm.   Safety is created by an ecosystem made up of codes, skilled workers, regular enforcement, and public understanding. It is not a spontaneous condition. Most critically, it requires the government never takes its role in leading these efforts for granted.   In Oakland, that system broke down. Reportedly, city officials, even fire personnel, were aware of the warehouse turned artists' residence and unpermitted concert space. Code violations, like exposed wires and a staircase created from wooden shipping pallets, were glaring. The precise cause of the city's inertia may be an unknown but the fact that only six fire inspectors served a city of over 430,000 certainly contributed, as did shoddy reporting and chaotic filing systems. These factors left a system where nearly 80 percent of fire safety referrals citywide were left un-inspected in the six years before the fire.   Unfortunately, weak enforcement systems are spread well beyond Oakland. In-depth reporting in 2018 from the Mercury News East Bay Times discovered that Bay Area cities routinely missed mandated yearly inspections for hotels, motels, apartment buildings, and schools. Further away, in Las Vegas, a motel, which had gone uninspected for several years despite safety complaints, caught fire killing six people. And in Washington, DC, an alert from police to city inspectors flagging an unsafe, illicit residence slipped through the cracks. A fire months later killed two people, including a 9-year-old boy.   To avoid catastrophes big and small, cities should check the health of the ecosystem that protects their citizens. By conducting community risk assessments, safety officials better prioritize their inspection resources. Through integrating systems across multiple departments, building and fire officials can keep a better eye on the city's built environment and be aware of buildings that are no longer compliant with permits and inspections from years ago. Critically, police, child protective services, and all other officials need formalized protocols for reporting unsafe conditions to fire authorities. This all must operate within a culture that understands acting will save lives.   Investment in safety is exponentially better than investment in lawsuits. The $32.7 million dollars to victims' families and an injured survivor may be the best civil justice can offer, but it will never replace what was lost. Rather than wait for the next tragedy, engaging now in a full safety systems approach will help us get closer to ending these avoidable losses.   Meghan Housewright is the director of the National Fire Protection Association Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute. The Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute supports policymakers around the globe in protecting people and property from fire and other hazards with best practice recommendations and approaches to develop and sustain a strong fire prevention and protection system. Photo: A view from above Oakland, CA

After 2013 West, Texas, Explosion, Gaps Persist in Ammonium Nitrate Regulations

With the horrific explosion in Beirut, Lebanon on August 4, it is an apt time to revisit the U.S. Chemical Safety Board's (CSB) report on the 2013 ammonium nitrate (AN) detonation that devastated West, Texas, killing 15 people, and injuring 260 others. That report, published in 2016, identified the regulatory gaps and system weaknesses that had allowed a major hazard to go unnoticed for years in the community. Although some progress has been made on AN safety in the U.S. since the accident, as Katherine Lemos, chair of the CSB, noted in a recent statement, many of the weaknesses that were present in 2013 remain in 2020. In its report, the CSB pointed to a number of factors that enabled the 2013 incident, both in its occurrence and its severity. From the unsafe storage conditions of the AN to the low hazard awareness of the responding firefighters, 12 of whom lost their lives. Chief among the regulatory gaps and weaknesses identified by the CSB were those left by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health  Administration (OSHA). Those regulations, EPA's Risk Management Program (RMP) and OSHA's Process Safety Management (PSM) program, did not cover AN in 2013 and they still don't. The RMP and PSM rules were developed by the agencies to prevent major chemical accidents but they do not include the use of AN within their scope. Facilities using AN, like the West Fertilizer Company (WFC), are therefore not required to perform hazard analyses, employee safety training, emergency planning, and other actions to minimize the risk and consequences of an AN accident. In this context, it bears noting that WFC was familiar with EPA's RMP regulation as it pertained to anhydrous ammonia, which the company stored on site, and endeavored to comply. The inclusion of AN in the standard would have brought scrutiny to the facility's sizable AN stockpile and the fire safety hazards that surrounded it. Without PSM, OSHA still has a rule that applies to AN—the Explosives and Blasting Agents regulation. However, since WFC was selling AN as a fertilizer, and not for use as an explosive, they were not aware it applied. In 2016, CSB urged OSHA to not only change the name of the regulation to indicate it applies to any use of AN over a threshold quantity, but also to change the regulation to reference NFPA 400 (2016). This most recent edition of NFPA 400, now 2019, prohibits AN storage in wooden bins, the practice at WFC, and requires stricter fire protection measures. As it is now, [the CSB believes] the OSHA regulation is insufficient to provide for the safe use of the material. At the state level, Texas still lacks a statewide fire code and the state law still makes it difficult for authorities in more rural areas to adopt one. Given that ammonium nitrate is stored and used in rural counties, officials should have more tools at their disposal to ensure those facilities are not a danger to the community. Another tool suggested by the CSB is insurance. Texas requires businesses in a number of different sectors to hold commercial liability insurance policies, from amusement ride operators to electricians and tow truck drivers. However, there's no such requirements for proprietors selling large quantities of fertilizer. In WFC's case, their original insurance provider dropped their coverage after making safety recommendations that went unfollowed. While WFC did acquire insurance from another provider, the actual damages from the accident exceeded the coverage by several orders of magnitude. If businesses storing and selling AN were required to hold insurance policies that met certain criteria, communities would have another set of eyes, and another layer of protection, for those facilities. The CSB report made a number of other recommendations as well, from ensuring hazardous materials training for firefighters and encouraging pre-incident planning to implementing industry programs to inform every actor in the supply chain of the hazards associated with AN. But so far, of the 19 recommendations, only seven are closed. In Beirut, it has been reported that public safety officials tried to no avail to spur the removal of a huge stockpile of AN from the port. In the U.S., we may take for granted that officials would act, and with urgency, if an [ultrahazardous] situation was discovered in our community. However, as the open recommendations show, we are still allowing a hazard to slip through the cracks. For additional information on the subject, watch a recent video with Guy Colonna, an engineering director at NFPA, who discusses ammonium nitrate safety after the Beirut explosion. Guy will also host a webinar for stakeholders in Latin America on Monday, August 24 at 8:00 pm (19:00 Mexico City local time) with Jaime Gutiérrez, new NFPA international development director for Latin America, about the role of ammonium nitrate in the Beirut explosion, and appropriate safety management of the chemical compound.      

Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem: Skillsets are Incomplete Without Key Safety Component

A skilled worker who overlooks safety is not a skilled worker.                                                                     In Farmington, Maine, last September, employees at the offices of a local non-profit thought they smelled gas. Having discovered that the recently filled 500-gallon propane tank was empty, the building's facility manager evacuated the building and called the fire department. Less than 15 minutes later, there was a massive explosion. Investigations found two serious lapses at the center of the accidents. Days earlier, workers driving metal posts into the ground next to the building failed in their due diligence to make sure they would avoid underground fuel lines. Three days after that work on the building's parking lot, a technician came to fill the office's empty propane tank and failed to do a code-required “leak test” to verify the propane had been used, not lost through a hole in the tank or piping. Had the workers called the state's Dig Safe program, as required under the law, they could have avoided puncturing the propane tank's fuel line. Had the technician performed the leak test, as required by code after a tank has sat empty, the leak could have been discovered before the explosion blasted through the office building, claiming the life of the fire captain on the scene and seriously injuring seven others. A lack of skill may masquerade as simple oversights or carelessness on the job. However, the most fundamental skills for any job is fully appreciating the safety implications of ignoring policies and procedures intended to prevent catastrophes.  Skilled workers know the code and follow the rules. Laws that require licensures, as the state of Maine requires for propane technicians, and laws that require excavators to call the state Dig Safe program before digging are critical. Just as critical is the need and a shared responsibility to impart through training, and re-training, and continued professional development, the deadly consequences of failing to appreciate that safety is the core skill needed for the job. Learn more about this and similar stories in our 2019 Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem: Year in Review report, now available to download for freeon NFPA's Ecosystem webpage. Interested in knowing more about the Ecosystem framework and how you can get involved? Check out our free resources including: A link to the “Ecosystem Watch” page in NFPA Journal An animated video, “About the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem” A Fire & Life Safety PowerPoint deck for presentations A Fire & Life Safety fact sheet  Find all of these resources and more by visiting the Ecosystem webpage at 

Latest Articles