Fire Prevention Week is on record as the longest running public health observance, according to the National Archives and Records Administration’s Library Information Center.
NFPA has been the official sponsor of Fire Prevention Week since 1922, when the commemoration began.
President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed the first National Fire Prevention Week on October 4-10, 1925, beginning a tradition of the President of the United States signing a proclamation recognizing the occasion. It is observed on the Sunday through Saturday period in which October 9 falls, in commemoration of the Great Chicago Fire, which began October 8, 1871, and did most of its damage October 9.
The horrific conflagration killed more than 250 people, left 100,000 homeless, destroyed more than 17,400 structures and burned more than 2,000 acres.
Blaming it on the cow
According to popular legend, the fire broke out after a cow - belonging to Mrs. Catherine O'Leary - kicked over a lamp, setting first the barn, located on the property of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary at 137 Dekoven Street on the city’s southwest side, then the whole city on fire. Chances are you've heard some version of this story yourself; people have been blaming the Great Chicago Fire on the cow and Mrs. O'Leary, for more than 130 years. Mrs. O’Leary denied this charge. Recent research by Chicago historian Robert Cromie has helped to debunk this version of events.
The making of a pop culture phenomenon
Like any good story, the 'case of the cow' has some truth to it. The great fire almost certainly started near the barn where Mrs. O'Leary kept her five milking cows. But there is no proof that O'Leary was in the barn when the fire broke out - or that a jumpy cow sparked the blaze. Mrs. O'Leary herself swore that she'd been in bed early that night, and that the cows were also tucked in for the evening.
After the Great Fire, Chicago Tribune reporter Michael Ahern published a report that the fire had started when a cow kicked over a lantern while it was being milked. The woman was not named, but Catherine O'Leary was identified. Illustrations and caricatures soon appeared depicting Mrs. O'Leary with the cow.
In 1893, however, Ahern admitted he had made the story up.
"Mrs. O'Leary's cow" has attracted the attention and imagination of generations as the cause of the fire. Numerous references, in a variety of media, have been made in American popular culture, including films, television, and popular music.
But if a cow wasn't to blame for the huge fire, what was? Over the years, journalists and historians have offered plenty of theories. Some blamed the blaze on a couple of neighborhood boys who were near the barn sneaking cigarettes. Others believed that a neighbor of the O'Leary's may have started the fire. Some people have speculated that a fiery meteorite may have fallen to earth on October 8, starting several fires that day - in Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as in Chicago.
The biggest blaze that week
The Peshtigo Fire, the most devastating forest fire in American history, was the biggest blaze that week, but drew little note outside of the region–in and around Peshtigo, Wisconsin– because of the attention drawn by the Great Chicago Fire.
The Peshtigo Fire, which also occurred on October 8th, 1871, roared through Northeast Wisconsin, burning down 16 towns, killing 1,152 people, and scorching 1.2 million acres before it ended.
Historical accounts of the fire say that the blaze began when several railroad workers clearing land for tracks unintentionally started a brush fire. Before long, the fast-moving flames were whipping through the area 'like a tornado,' some survivors said. It was the small town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, that suffered the worst damage. Within an hour, the entire town had been destroyed.
Nine decades of fire prevention
Those who survived the Chicago and Peshtigo fires never forgot what they'd been through; both blazes produced countless tales of bravery and heroism. But the fires also changed the way that firefighters and public officials thought about fire safety. On the 40th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, the Fire Marshals Association of North America (today known as the International Fire Marshals Association), decided that the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire should henceforth be observed not with festivities, but in a way that would keep the public informed about the importance of fire prevention. The commemoration grew incrementally official over the years.
In 1920, President Woodrow Wilson issued the first National Fire Prevention Day proclamation, and since 1922, Fire Prevention Week has been observed on the Sunday through Saturday period in which October 9 falls. The President of the United States has signed a proclamation proclaiming a national observance during that week every year since 1925.
Listen as NFPA's Casey Grant and best-selling author Lauren Tarshsis of the ‘I Survived’ book series talk about the lessons we learned from the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.
Since 1922, Fire Prevention Week has been observed on the Sunday through Saturday period in which October 9 falls. Here are dates for future FPW campaigns.
- 2018 - October 7-13
- 2019 - October 6-12
- 2020 - October 4-10
Fire Prevention Week themes over the years
- 1927 Why this Mad Sacrifice to Fire?
- 1928 FIRE…Do Your Part – Stop This Waste!
- 1929 FIRE – The Nation’s Greatest Menace! Do Your Part to Stop This Waste!
- 1930 Fight Fire Waste with Fire Prevention. Do Your Part
- 1932 Your Life. Your Property
- 1933 Your Life. Your Property
- 1934 Now War on Fire
- 1935 What Would Fire Mean to You?
- 1936 Stop It
- 1937 Help Prevent Fires
- 1938 Is This Your Tomorrow?
- 1939 Was Somebody Careless?
- 1940 Keep Fire In Its Place
- 1941 Defend Against Fire
- 1942 Today Every Fire Helps Hitler
- 1943 Fires Fight for the Axis! (to emphasize home fire prevention)
Feed Fighters Not Fires (farm and rural campaign)
The War’s Over for This Plant (industrial use)
Was Somebody Careless? (general purpose)
- 1944 To Speed Victory – Prevent Fires (general purpose)
Feed Fighters, Not Fires! (farm and rural)
To Speed Victory, Defeat Fire (town plaster)
- 1945 We Burned the Enemy – Now Save Yourself from Fire
- 1946 FIRE is the Silent Partner of Inflation
- 1947 YOU caused 1,700,000 Fires last Year!
- 1948 Help Yourself to Fire Prevention!
- 1949 Flameproof Your Future!
- 1950 Don’t Let Fire Lick You
- 1951 Defend America From Fire
- 1952 Be Free From Fear of Fire
- 1953 Fire Feeds on Careless Deeds
- 1954 Let’s Grow Up – Not Burn Up
- 1955 Don’t Give Fire A Place to Start
- 1956 Don’t Give Fire a Place to Start
- 1957 Make Sure of Their Tomorrows – Don’t Give Fire a Place to Start
- 1958 Don't Give Fire a Place to Start
- 1959 Fire Prevention is Your Job…Too
- 1960 Don't Give Fire a Place to Start
- 1961 Don't Give Fire a Place to Start
- 1962 Fire Prevention is Your Job…Too
- 1963 Don't Give Fire a Place to Start
- 1964 Fire Prevention is Your Job…Too
- 1965 Don't Give Fire a Place to Start
- 1966 Fight Fire
- 1967 Fire Hurts
- 1968 Fire Hurts
- 1969 Fire Hurts
- 1970 Fire Hurts
- 1971 Fire Hurts
- 1972 Fire Hurts
- 1973 Help Stop Fire
- 1974 Things That Burn
- 1975 Learn Not to Burn
- 1976 Learn Not to Burn
- 1977 Where There's Smoke, There Should Be a Smoke Alarm
- 1978 You Are Not Alone!
- 1979 Partners in Fire Prevention
- 1980 Partners in Fire Prevention
- 1981 EDITH (Exit Drills In The Home)
- 1982 Learn Not To Burn - Wherever You Are
- 1983 Learn Not To Burn All Through the Year
- 1984 Join the Fire Prevention Team
- 1985 Fire Drills Save Lives at Home at School at Work
- 1986 Learn Not to Burn: It Really Works!
- 1987 Play It Safe…Plan Your Escape
- 1988 A Sound You Can Live With: Test Your Smoke Detector
- 1989 Big Fires Start Small: Keep Matches and Lighters in the Right Hands
- 1990 Keep Your Place Firesafe: Hunt for Home Hazards
- 1991 Fire Won't Wait...Plan Your Escape.
- 1992 Test Your Detector - It's Sound Advice!
- 1993 Get Out, Stay Out: Your Fire Safe Response
- 1994 Test Your Detector For Life
- 1995 Watch What You Heat: Prevent Home Fires!
- 1996 Let's Hear It For Fire Safety: Test Your Detectors!
- 1997 Know When to Go: React Fast to Fire
- 1998 Fire Drills: The Great Escape!
- 1999 Fire Drills: The Great Escape!
- 2000 Fire Drills: The Great Escape!
- 2001 Cover the Bases & Strike Out Fire
- 2002 Team Up for Fire Safety
- 2003 When Fire Strikes: Get Out! Stay Out!
- 2004 It's Fire Prevention Week! Test Your Smoke Alarms
- 2005 Use Candles With Care
- 2006 Prevent Cooking Fires: Watch What You Heat
- 2007 It's Fire Prevention Week! Practice Your Escape Plan
- 2008 It's Fire Prevention Week! Prevent Home Fires
- 2009 Stay Fire Smart! Don't Get Burned
- 2010 Smoke Alarms: A Sound You Can Live With
- 2011 It's Fire Prevention Week! Protect Your Family From Fire!
- 2012 Have 2 Ways Out!
- 2013 Prevent Kitchen Fires
- 2014 Smoke Alarms Save Lives: Test Yours Every Month
- 2015 Hear The Beep Where You Sleep. Every Bedroom Needs a Working Smoke Alarm!
- 2016 Don’t Wait – Check the Date! Replace Smoke Alarms Every 10 Years
- 2017 Every Second Counts: Plan 2 Ways Out!
- 2018 Look. Listen. Learn. Be aware. Fire can happen anywhere.