Author(s): James Shannon. Published on May 1, 2012.

Fire Safety: No Mystery

NFPA Journal®, May/June 2012

There is an old Sherlock Holmes story where the key clue is that the dog did not bark in the night, thereby proving there was no intruder. It was the silence that was significant in figuring out who had committed the crime.



March - April 2012
Electric vehicles: safety and more

January - February 2012
Enabling the enforcers

November - December 2011
Closing the gap 

October 2011 - Special Bonus Issue: NFPA + Wildfire
The wildfire priority

September - October 2011
Learning from sacrifice

July - August 2011
The needs of the fire service

May - June 2011
State of Independence

I thought of that story recently as I talked to an acquaintance who is active in his town government. He is a reasonable person and a successful businessman, but he argued that there was really no need for a fire department in his town because they had so few fires. It is hard for me to keep cool when I hear people say things like that, especially when I hear it from someone who should know better. It’s true that fires aren’t as frequent as they used to be in many communities, but people should ask themselves why that dog doesn’t bark as often as it did in the past.

I had a much better conversation in the grocery store the other day when I ran into a fire chief from a city near where I live. He told me about a great campaign that he just launched. His city has a large immigrant community and a tight housing market, and many people have created illegal apartments. Whole families are paying exorbitant rents to live in basements where there are inadequate exits and too few electrical outlets. Cooking is done on hot plates or rigged-up appliances.

The chief told me that his firefighters are knocking on doors all over the city, and when they find these illegal units they make the landlords move the families out and into hotels immediately.

The alternative is that the landlord pays for a fire watch — at a cost of $1,500 a day — until the family is relocated. The firefighters also make sure that there are working smoke alarms in every home they visit. If there are none, they install them, and they replace any batteries that have expired or been removed. 


We cannot quantify how many lives are saved or how many horrible fires are prevented by these kinds of tried-and-true activities, but we have enough evidence from over the years to know that fire prevention efforts such as these saves lives. Simple steps to avoid tragedies are far less costly than dealing with the consequences when they occur.

It is not just a question of having good fire departments, either. All of the efforts we make to educate the public, to require smoke alarms, to put sprinklers into residences and public places, to encourage the use of safer building materials, and to support the enforcement of codes such as the National Electrical Code® have played tremendous roles in reducing the number of fires and the deaths and injuries they cause. But none of this progress has happened without a lot of effort, and that effort has in the past been supported by a broad public belief that we had to do everything we could to protect public safety.

Strong leaders, especially in the fire service, do not let the public forget that fire is still a major problem in this country, and they are committed to continuing the progress we have already made. Considering the unnecessary injuries, deaths, and property losses that are still caused by fires, the need to continue, and to strengthen, our fundamental work on behalf of fire safety seems, as Holmes might say to Dr. Watson, pretty elementary.