A Tumultuous 2020 and a Look Ahead to Safety in the New Year
BY JIM PAULEY, PRESIDENT AND CEO, NFPA
Each year as the leaves turn color and the temperatures dip, I, like so many of you, look forward to the holiday season and spending time with family and friends. This year, however, looks very different with gatherings smaller than usual or taking place virtually. Life as we’ve come to know it has changed dramatically for many of us, and it has required a new way of approaching our home life and the workplace. At the same time, the world has soldiered on, and in many cases, the issues we faced before the pandemic remain the same. We’ve seen progress in many areas, but other incidents point to the fact that our work is far from done.
While the virus continues to test us all, and in some cases diverted attention from more typical community needs, it is also worth noting that key safety advances occurred alongside of the tremendous effort of first responders and those in fire and life safety to respond to the pandemic. For example, the use and enforcement of the latest edition of the National Electrical Code® (NEC®) is moving forward. As of November 1, six states have completed their 2020 NEC update process. Sixteen states currently using the 2017 NEC have begun the process of revising the statute or administrative rule through which the NEC is updated to reference the 2020 edition.
In May, three years after the Grenfell Tower fire in the UK – 72 lives were lost when fire rushed up the side of a 24-story apartment building that included ACM cladding and other combustible exterior wall components – the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities, and Local Government introduced a new £1 billion Building Safety Fund to assist with the removal of non-ACM cladding on high rise residential buildings. The funding was added to the £600 million set aside last year to pay for the replacement of unsafe exterior walls on buildings over 18 meters (roughly 59 feet) that do not meet building regulations.
As they have continued to counter the negativity and misinformation associated with home fire sprinklers, safety advocates have remained vigilant in their efforts to bring this life saving technology to communities across the U.S. This year, towns such as Bridgeview, Illinois and New Paltz, New York, saw their efforts realized when their local boards passed ordinances to require sprinklers in new construction and manufactured houses. Cheyenne, Wyoming welcomed the inspection of the first home constructed with residential fire sprinklers. NFPA has also launched with the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition a new education program aimed at increasing the use of developer incentives that translate into more sprinklers and financial gains for the developers.
Collectively, these events mark progress. But even with successes we are painfully reminded every day that there is still much more work to be done. In the last few months we’ve seen a spate of buildings under construction going up in flames. The latest incident occurred in October in Texas where a multi-alarm fire destroyed two four-story buildings totaling 400 apartments. In July, a fire in Reno, Nevada caused the destruction of the majority of buildings under construction at a six-story townhouse complex. In April, 38 people died after a fire tore through a four-story warehouse under construction in South Korea. It has been called the third “devastating workplace fire” in the country in recent years.
In August, the world watched in horror as an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon – caused by the improper storage of ammonium nitrate in a warehouse in the city’s port – left 100 people dead and thousands more injured. The event is sadly reminiscent of a deadly incident in Texas back in 2013 when ammonium nitrate was involved in an explosion that killed 15 people at a fertilizer storage and distribution facility just north of Waco.
In a year that has been described as unprecedented, states like Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and California have dealt with devastating wildfires. As of October, in California alone, the 2020 wildfire season has killed more than 30 people, destroyed nearly 8,500 structures and burned a record-breaking 4 million acres of land, double the acreage burned in 2018, the state’s second worst wildfire season record.
All too often events like these tend to be forgotten or become footnotes. But this cannot be the norm. The collective tragedy is that these fire incidents don’t tell us anything we don’t already know. What we’re seeing is, the lessons we learned from the past still go largely unheeded today. As this unusual year comes to a close, we cannot just look back at the past and hope things will improve in the future; together we must actually reverse course. Without driving real change in the days and months ahead in how we approach and manage fire safety, we will only see these problems getting worse. It takes all of us working together.
On behalf of NFPA, thank you for joining us in the quest to reduce loss. We value your dedication to improving safety and saving lives. While we celebrate the successes and accomplishments of the past year, we need tackle the challenges we continue to face in the year ahead.
We wish you and yours a holiday season and New Year filled with good health, happiness, and prosperity. We look forward to working together with characteristic vigor in 2021. IT’S A BIG WORLD. LET’S PROTECT IT TOGETHER®.
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