Author(s): Meghan Housewright. Published on May 31, 2022.

Taking Stock

A new tool developed by NFPA can help communities identify critical gaps in the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem


In January, a fire occurred in a high-rise apartment building in the Bronx. The blaze was sparked by a space heater and resulted in heavy smoke that moved rapidly through the building; 17 people died in the fire, all as a result of smoke inhalation. After the fire, New York City Mayor Eric Adams stressed the need to spread the message among all New Yorkers to close their doors when they evacuate from a fire.

As important as this kind of public education can be, it is not a substitute for code enforcement. In 2017, an almost identical fire took the lives of 13 Bronx residents, prompting the city to retroactively require all buildings with three or more apartments to install self-closing fire doors. A review of city records by THE CITY, an online publication covering New York, found more than 18,000 cases of open violations of this rule. Testimony from union leaders to the city council alleged that fire inspectors had been reassigned to enforce coronavirus measures, a shift that raises concerns that fire safety enforcement lost ground to the pandemic. And finally, if the building that burned in January had had fire sprinklers, the outcome would have been very different. As this tragic event demonstrates, there is rarely a single factor that results in the loss of life or property; instead, an array of variables typically contributes to shaping fire and life safety risk, and the outcome of events when things go wrong.

To define those variables and better understand the relationship between them, we created the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem™. This eight-part framework identifies the core components essential to supporting safety: government responsibility, development and use of current codes, referenced standards, investment in safety, skilled workforce, code compliance, preparedness and emergency response, and informed public. Each of these must be present, intact, and working in concert with the other elements if communities hope to maintain a meaningful, effective safety culture.

The 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London illustrates the value of the ecosystem approach to defining risk and determining safety breakdowns. A fire began inside the high-rise apartment block, then moved to the exterior of the building. Combustible exterior cladding allowed the fire to race up and around the structure and find additional points to penetrate the interior. Soon most of the building was engulfed by fire. The blaze gutted much of the tower and killed 72 people. The exterior cladding may have been the proximate cause of the catastrophe—the cladding failed to meet referenced fire testing standards—but as the inquiry into the tragedy continued, it became clear that breakdowns in other aspects of the ecosystem also played critical roles in the outcome.

For example, government officials reportedly had test results from 15 years earlier showing that the type of cladding material used on the Grenfell Tower would fail in a fire, but they took no steps to outlaw the material on tall buildings. Design professionals on the Grenfell project showed a lack of fire safety knowledge. There were glaring defects in workmanship on installed fire barriers behind the cladding. Inspectors were too over-extended to properly ensure code compliance. Project owners focused heavily on cost-saving measures without evaluating their safety implications. Government responsibility, use of referenced standards, skilled workforce, code compliance, investment in safety—all of these elements of the safety ecosystem had been undermined by deficiencies that paved the way to tragedy. Grenfell demonstrated the importance of being able to evaluate the overall strength of a safety ecosystem and to identify potential weak spots before a hazard resulted in a calamity.


The Value of Codes and Standards and the Fire and Life Safety Ecosystem 
Monday, June 6, 9:15–10:15 a.m.
Brian Brauer, University of Illinois; Ken Willette, NAFTD

Examining The Great Boston Fire of 1872 Through the Lens of the NFPA Safety Ecosystem
Tuesday, June 7, 10:30–11:30 a.m.
Stephanie Schorow, author; Meghan Housewright, NFPA

The 2020 Beirut Explosion:Lessons Learned from anEcosystem Failure 
Tuesday, June 7, 2–3 p.m.
Sawsan Dahham, Dar Al-Handasah

That’s why NFPA created the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem Assessment Tool, available at

Launched by the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute and available on the ecosystem website, our intent was to provide something comprehensive, easy to use, and capable of producing useful insights. It is designed to help users identify safety gaps in their communities by asking a series of yes or no questions on the policies, practices, and resources that support each of the eight components of the safety ecosystem. The tool, available in English, Spanish, and Arabic, delivers a score of green (excellent), yellow (good), fair (orange), or red (poor), along with a downloadable report. The assessment tool can’t predict the future, but it can help you take the first steps toward addressing existing safety gaps.

Sharpening the tool

From our experience with the tool so far, I can report that fire-prevention activities are the thing most likely to receive short shrift in an assessment of community safety capacity. But a bit of context first.

Capacity is a broad concept—as envisioned here, it describes the collective ability of the community to support safety. And, like attempts to evaluate capacity in other settings, the tool relies on indicators to kick the tires of each component of the ecosystem framework. A major challenge in developing the assessment tool is the fact that while that framework applies universally, every community is different, starting with the question of what makes a community. Is it New York City? Is it the Bronx? Within the Bronx, is it Hunts Point or Pelham Bay? Since it can be all of these things, the tool allows the person performing the assessment to decide the boundaries of the area they are evaluating. Generally, though, the questions pertain to the requirements, resources, and practices that apply across some sort of jurisdictional boundary.

For example, one question the tool asks is whether the community has a sufficient number of trained or certified fire safety inspectors to carry out an inspection program. The concern raised by union leaders to New York City Council members following the Bronx high-rise fire—that inspectors who might have examined the building had been reassigned to other duties—suggests there weren’t enough boots on the ground to satisfy the safety needs of central Bronx. While the assessment tool isn’t granular enough to pinpoint a particular building or city block where the next fire will occur, it can help identify the larger weaknesses in the systems responsible for those city blocks—such as, in the case of the Bronx, an inspectional force stretched thin by unexpected demands. Users of the assessment tool will have the best understanding of how big, or how small, that scope of responsibility should be.

Just as the tool tries to be scalable, it also tries to be generic, referring as much as possible to the functions that support different ecosystem components. It’s also designed to avoid terminology drawn from any one country’s system. For example, in the United States, fire code enforcement in many cities is the responsibility of the fire department or the fire marshal. In other countries, fire code enforcement responsibilities may be located in a special division of the police department. The important thing is whether there is an authority with primary responsibility for ensuring that businesses and other occupancies adhere to the code. As a result, the tool simply asks: Does the community have a designated authority responsible for enforcing fire and life safety codes? Similarly, the tool wants to know what power that authority has to pursue code compliance. Can they access private property to perform inspections? Are they empowered to issue fines and citations? Can they order the closure of a premises if they find conditions that threaten life safety? Without authorities like these, a community’s capacity to prevent fires and loss of life and property is diminished.

While the assessment tool is intended to provide a snapshot of a community’s life safety supports, the questions cover a wide array of safety functions and do require knowledge of the community’s existing safety practices. For instance, the tool asks not only whether building, electrical, and fire and life safety codes are in force, but also whether any provisions of those codes were altered—namely, reduced or weakened—before the code was put into effect. Therefore, the people best suited to complete the assessment are those in fire and life safety and adjacent fields, such as members of the fire service, design professionals, skilled tradespeople, or those with policy expertise in these areas.

So far, more than 100 assessments have been conducted, spanning communities in both of the Americas, throughout Asia, in Africa, and the Caribbean. More than half of the results report ecosystem capacities in the good-to-excellent range. Drilling down, though, the question that assessment takers most commonly answered with a “no” (about 44 percent) asks whether the community’s government provides sufficient funding for fire prevention and community risk reduction activities. A similar number of communities reported not having enough appropriately trained fire safety inspectors. Nearly half have codes in place that have been weakened by the removal of requirements. And while nearly all users have reported that zoning is in practice in their communities, only around 60 percent had additional code requirements in place to mitigate the risk posed by natural hazards such as earthquakes and wildfire.

The assessment tool is off to a good start, but more users—and more data—will provide more thorough insights into the most common safety weaknesses found around the world. We invite users to provide feedback directly in the tool, or by contacting the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute at mhousewright@nfpa.og.

The assessment tool is just the first round of our plan to develop methods of assessing the health of community safety support systems; there is room to grow in our ability to analyze the reasons ecosystem components degrade and fail. With emerging life safety challenges all around us, from worsening wildfires to fast-paced urban growth, continuing to expand these capabilities will help us better define and address gaps in the fire and life safety ecosystem and create a more robust and resilient safety culture.

MEGHAN HOUSEWRIGHT is director of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute in Washington, DC. Top photograph: Getty Images