Author(s): James Pauley. Published on July 1, 2017.

'The System is Broken'

Why the deadly London fire and other events at home and abroad require a worldwide call to action.


In June, the media was consumed with the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire in London, where 79 people died or were presumed dead. News stories covered the flammability of exterior cladding, the lack of fire sprinklers in the building, the notion of “shelter in place,” and other subjects. On its own, it was a horrendous tragedy. In combination with other recent events, it suggests disturbing trends that could represent a serious setback for fire safety worldwide.

In less than a year, we saw 36 people perish in the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, where a former warehouse was being used as living and entertainment space. The fire raised questions about appropriate permitting for its use, code enforcement, lack of fire alarms, and the role of occupants in understanding the impact of their surroundings on their own personal safety. We saw a fire at a packaging factory in Bangladesh that killed 23 people in a building with woefully inadequate fire protection. We saw a wildfire in Tennessee burn over 17,000 acres and kill 14 people, prompting questions about pre-planning, building in the wildland/urban interface to withstand wildfire, fire service ability to respond to an event of that magnitude, and public awareness around the growing wildfire threat. Another raging wildfire in Portugal claimed the lives of 62 people in June, many burned in their cars as they attempted to flee, raising similar questions about planning and preparedness. We saw a six-year-old girl die in Connecticut when fire ripped through her family’s recently constructed house; had the home been built to meet the national codes, which call for the inclusion of home fire sprinklers, the event would likely have had a much different outcome.

Collectively, these incidents illustrate how, either intentionally or accidentally, the global fire prevention and protection system has been broken. This is a system that the public believes exists and that it counts on for its safety. But it is also a system that, through complacency, bad policy, and a focus on the economics of construction over the safety of building occupants, has let the public down. It is a worldwide problem that warrants action.

How did this happen? In each of these scenarios, and in many other recent incidents, we can point to one or more factors: the use of outdated codes and standards; acceptance of reduced safety requirements to save money; ignoring referenced standards within a code; lack of education around the application of codes and standards; reduced enforcement; and public unawareness of the dangers of fire.

When governments and other entities do not adopt the latest versions of codes and standards, or when designers do not use them, they lose the benefit of the latest technology, research, and collective wisdom related to fire, electrical, and life safety.

When policy makers decide to remove life safety and property protection provisions from codes, they have substituted politics for technical requirements that were determined after extensive input from knowledgeable people across a spectrum of professional disciplines.

When users fail to review and follow standards that are referenced in the codes, they are not ensuring the right practices and products are used in the right situations, increasing the vulnerability to disaster.

When the professionals involved in design, installation, enforcement, and maintenance have not kept up to date on the latest requirements, they can end up applying products improperly, leading to catastrophic results.

When jurisdictions, under fiscal pressures or lack of understanding of the importance, reduce enforcement efforts, they place their communities at risk as buildings deteriorate, and when they change ownership or type of use.

And when members of the public take safety for granted and are uneducated about fire risks, their improper or uneducated actions can place them in peril.

The system the public relies on for manging fire safety is broken, and a single solution isn’t the answer. It will take a systems approach to fix it. At NFPA, we are focused on looking at the entire system and working with everyone involved to fill the gaps.

We may not be able to prevent every tragedy from occurring, but by recommitting to and promoting a full system of fire prevention, protection, and education, we can help save lives and reduce loss. That is the story that should consume the news of the day.

JAMES PAULEY, NFPA President. Top Photograph: Newscom