Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on November 4, 2022.

GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS
Call To Action

A first ever USFA summit on fire prevention puts the nation's fire problem in sharp focus 

BY LORRAINE CARLI   


Cancer, behavioral health, recruitment and retention, and resources for firefighting in the wildland urban interface were just a few of the fire service-related issues addressed at a recent event designed to highlight the most pressing aspects of the nation’s fire problem.

The Fire Administrator’s Summit on Fire Prevention and Control, presented by the US Fire Administration and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, brought together an array of fire service stakeholders, including NFPA, to identify critical issues and present possible solutions to those problems. The historic, first-of-its-kind event was held in October during the 100th anniversary of NFPA’s Fire Prevention Week. This year also marked the 75th anniversary of the Conference on Fire Prevention, an event spearheaded by President Harry S. Truman to highlight the nation’s fire problem. 



Watch a video of last month's USFA summit event


President Joseph Biden addressed the group virtually to express his appreciation. “On behalf of my own family and every American, I just want to [say] again: Thank you, thank you, thank you. Fires will always be a fact of human life. And when the worst happens, when those alarms go off, when everything and everybody you love is in danger, there's no better sight in the world than that firefighter who’s ready to go to work.”

The Summit included two key components: a national roundtable between fire service leaders and Biden administration officials, and a live-streamed “State of Science” featuring presentations on fire issues by some of the most prominent fire-science experts in the United States. 

 

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The roundtable was moderated by US Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell and included Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas (virtual), Deputy Secretary John Tien, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, and Special Assistant to the President Director Caitlin Durkovich. The discussion produced six big-picture asks of the administration. 

— Chief Donna Black from Duck, North Carolina, who is also President of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, spoke about the need to provide proper training and equipment for firefighters nationwide to battle wildfires in the wildland urban interface, or WUI. 

— Chief Kevin Quinn from Union Fire District in Rhode Island, who also serves as first vice chair of the National Volunteer Fire Council, presented a plan to address the shortage of career and volunteer firefighters across the country and to make the fire service more diverse by investing in a national apprenticeship program. 

— Ed Kelly, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, asked that the federal government establish a comprehensive firefighter cancer strategy, invest in research, provide access to cancer screening for all firefighters, and reduce and ultimately eliminate PFAS exposure. 

— Chief Ernie Mitchell, former U.S. Fire Administrator and representative of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, discussed the efforts needed to prevent firefighters dying by suicide and to address the mental health needs of first responders. He also spoke of the need to elevate the fire service within the federal government to work side-by-side with other agencies working to protect and serve communities.

— NFPA President and CEO Jim Pauley closed out the panel by saying that the way to create safer communities is by implementing and enforcing codes and standards, especially in the WUI and in underserved and vulnerable populations by providing affordable and fire-safe housing. He implored the federal government to incentivize compliance by providing funding to local jurisdictions for code implementation, inspection, and enforcement, urging that all federally funded construction projects be required to comply with the most current fire and building codes and that federal housing assistance be tied to the use and compliance of the most current fire, life safety, electrical, and building codes. He further asked that that government make investments in retrofitting public housing with fire sprinkler systems and to ensure all public housing units are equipped with working smoke alarms that are installed and maintained to the relevant codes and standards. 

The State of Science presentations provided rich background on the specific asks to the federal officials during the morning roundtable, starting with Adam Thiel, commissioner of the Philadelphia Fire Department, and Frank Leeb, acting chief of training for the City of New York Fire Department. The two cities began 2022 with devastating structure fires that killed 17 and 12 people, respectively. Other presentations addressed the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires in the WUI; firefighter training, recruitment, and retention needs; and the current physical and mental health toll experienced by firefighters, including the prevalence of cancer and suicide. 

Dr. Moore-Merrell’s charge to government, presenters, and attendees was to embrace these challenges and support efforts to address them. “Collectively, we can save lives and property and preserve the nation’s infrastructure for future generations and protect our responders,” she said.

 

 
US Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell with President Joe Biden at the USFA summit last month

 

The Road Ahead

 

Summit participants were left with a handful of key takeaways that should serve as motivation for action, starting with the fact that the nation has a fire problem. 

That broad point was illustrated by Dr. Moore-Merrell, who opened the event with a poignant explanation of the significance of June 8, 2022—the only day during the nine months leading up to the summit when no one died in a home fire somewhere in the US. On every other day, at least one person died in a fire at home. Steve Kerber, executive director of UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute, underscored this observation by saying that we have the least amount of time to escape a fire in our homes than at any other point in history. And for every fire that receives public attention, thousands more occur each day with little acknowledgement or media attention, yet with similar tragic devastation. The underlying circumstances noted in many of these fires—changing demographics of neighborhoods, inequity in housing, lack of public awareness of safety, complacency towards fire, and deficient code compliance—provide important insights into how to reduce future losses in this country. While there has been a significant reduction in loss over the last four decades, the largest decreases occurred more than 20 years ago, and in recent years the trendline has been fairly flat.

Those are the kinds of characteristics sound eerily familiar to anyone who has read the proceedings from the 1947 Turman event which read in part “The nation’s fire problem is exacerbated by the indifference with which some Americans confront the subject; the nation's failure to undertake enough research and development into fire and fire-related problems; the scarcity of reliable data and information;  the fact that designers and purchasers of buildings and products generally give insufficient attention to fire safety; [and] the fact that many communities lack adequate building and fire prevention codes.” 

Nowhere in the modern version of this problem is the situation more acute than in the wildland urban interface. WUI fires increasingly contain the threat of becoming suburban or urban conflagrations, vast fires capable of destroying entire communities at any time during the year. Climate volatility, land use and building practices, and population shifts have put large swaths of the public, as well as the first responders who serve those people, in harm’s way. According to the latest NFPA Needs Assessment, structural firefighters are ill-equipped and ill-trained for this reality. Wildfire prevention and mitigation have been conducted predominantly through voluntary action, but to more rapidly impact this crisis, we need to change how we build and where we build. We need to bring the public, first responders, and policymakers together to make wildfire policy and regulatory changes.

In the face of these immense challenges, the health of the nation’s fire service needs greater attention. Cancer and behavioral health concerns are becoming more prevalent across both the volunteer and career ranks. While we know more about these issues than we did before, there is much more to do to better understand the risks to physical and mental health associated with the job and to provide adequate resources to address those risks. Additionally, there is a significant fire service staffing challenge. Covid, civil unrest, active shooters, and mass casualty events are contributing to a decline in recruitment and retention, as well as to a less-diverse workforce in both career and volunteer departments. Meanwhile, the number of calls to fire departments around the country has tripled over the last 30 years. 

Finally, this event brought together fire service leaders who spoke with one voice on behalf of the entire fire service community.  This united approach and collaborative spirit provide an opportunity to further reduce loss from fire. A recent NFPA study found that the most successful recipe for fire safety in the built environment is the implementation of fire safety technologies through mandated codes and standards, enforced through a strong system of checks and balances. Supporting this finding, the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem™ is a framework of eight interconnected elements that work together to advance safety. The ecosystem includes policymakers setting the right regulatory framework; jurisdictions using the most updated codes and standards; applying all of the standards, including referenced standards; prioritizing safety across the board; promoting the development of skilled workers in the design, installation, inspection and ongoing maintenance; supporting effective code enforcement; providing effective preparedness and response capabilities; and educating the public on the dangers posed by these hazards. Every component of the ecosystem is essential; when one or more elements is missing or ignored, tragedies can occur. This framework can provide a path forward against fire and a range of related challenges.

 

 

LORRAINE CARLI is vice president of Outreach and Advocacy at NFPA.