Are Current Fire Prevention and Education Models Failing Us?
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It seems that fire safety is more and more a social problem - but let´s change our perspective on this topic by attempting to look at Fire Prevention as a Service, rather than as a burden. Civilians are not the only target group exposed to increased fire risks; on average, more than 60 firefighters die every year in the line of duty in the United States alone.
By Dr. Ales Jug / Chair of the CTIF Commission for Fire Prevention. Article originally published in FireEnginering.com, on March 13, 2018.
There is no doubt that fire prevention is extremely important. According to Beard (Beard 1986), each fire may be regarded as a failure of a system with a potential lack of social value creation. The term “fire prevention” is often used among the fire service as well as politicians.
Fire prevention has many definitions and interpretations. It represents various aspects of fire safety, and it all depends on the environment where the definition is used. The recent past been difficult from the perspective of fire safety; we were faced with some devastating and fatal fires such as the devastating Grenfell Tower fire in London, a deadly residential building fire in the Bronx, and most recently the Liverpool car park fire, which destroyed about 1,400 cars.
According to Coulter (Coulter 1979), fire prevention effectiveness refers to the degree to which the fire service avoids or minimizes the incidence of fires.
A ratio such as the number of incidents per 1,000 population would measure prevention effectiveness (Coulter 1979). As seen from statistics, in some places the number of fires is steadily rising.
Although the fire figures are alarming; what is more questionable is how this can happen in the 21st century, when we know almost everything about fire prevention, fire protection, and fire risks. But is this last statement entirely true? What do we know for sure when it comes to fire prevention? Is our current fire prevention model ineffective?
To date, we do not have a true definition of fire prevention. In essence, “fire prevention” means we are trying to prevent and stop fires from happening. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines prevention as “an act of preventing or hindering something.”
Generally speaking, fire prevention can be defined as a system for providing citizens with activities that raise awareness of fire risks. We all agree that fire prevention initiatives are increasingly being viewed as an effective means of reducing unintentional dwelling fires, fire injuries, and fire fatalities. Adequate fire prevention reduces fires and consequently environmental, social and economic impacts of fire. Also, from a resources viewpoint, fire prevention initiatives are increasingly considered to be an effective and efficient use of fire and rescue service personnel.
Traditionally, prevention effectiveness means the degree to which the fire service avoids or minimizes the incidence of fires (Coulter 1979). There can be different approaches underlying fire prevention strategies used by fire and rescue services.
Some approaches may be based on spatial analysis of previous fire incidents, and others may be based on analysis of causal factors associated with fires (Higgins, Taylor, and Francis 2012). Nowadays, fire departments are exposed to budget cuts (Kravetz 2017) and subsequently a reduced number of personnel. On top of fighting fires, firefighters are helping people with opioid addictions (Gershon 2017) and health problems.
Statistics suggest firefighters don't fight that many fires these days. All this raises the question of the sufficiency of community risk reduction programs provided to local communities, especially since most fire departments worldwide rarely have a very positive attitude towards fire prevention.
Ask most fire department leaders and firefighters what their job is, and the first words they will emphasize will typically be focused on “after the fact” items such as the speed of response, fire inspections, search and rescue, fire suppression, public education, etc. (Avsec 2015).
Fire prevention can be costly with hard-to-measure rates of success.
It also requires significant education resources, and is in many cases is associated with responsibilities in liabilities.
Usually, fire prevention counts for one percent (or less) of the total departmental operating budget (Avsec 2015). So can fire departments be the one agency accountable for the deficiency in fire prevention programs? Definitely not!
Let's look at some other important factors that influence the fire risks and, consequently, indicate the lack of fire prevention:
- Rapid fire spread: In 2012, scientists at Underwriters Laboratories Fire Safety Research Institute (UL FSRI) designed a series of experiments focused on the size and geometry of modern homes as well as current furnishings and building materials. The experiments tested three modern home configurations against three so-called “legacy” configurations containing furniture UL described as being like furniture made in the 1950s. All the modern rooms transitioned to "flashover"--the point at which a surface reaches its autoignition temperature and emits flammable gases—in less than five minutes, UL found. By contrast, the fastest legacy room took just over 29 minutes to reach flashover, and the legacy-furnished rooms took eight times longer on average to reach flashover.
- Code deregulation: Fire codes globally are facing a deregulation process (Tombs and Whyte 2013). The purpose of deregulation is open the doors of competition to more businesses to offer consumers a excellent choice of various services or products. Regulations are usually designed to protect people in situations where they cannot protect themselves. For the wealthy and powerful, regulations can be a nuisance that limits their options and, potentially, their profits. To reduce the costs and support private investments, governments around the world are reducing fire safety requirements (Tombs and Whyte 2013). Under these code deregulations, there are fewer requirements for fire-rated building cladding, means of egress, fire detection, suppression systems and other fire safety measures.
- Fire department budget costs: Fire departments around the world are cutting jobs and closing firehouses (Leachman et al. 2016). A fire department, like most other departments within a city or town, is a type of investment. Over the next four years, emergency fire and rescue services in the UK will face--on average--a 22-percent reduction in their budgets. In the UK, since 2010, more than 10,000 firefighters have been laid off, dozens of fire stations have closed, fire engines have been scrapped, and the amount of emergency rescue equipment has been slashed. In London, 10 fire stations have been closed, 27 fire engines retired, and more than 600 firefighter posts have been cut. Every year, response times are increasing, and 2015-2016 saw a 15-percent rise in fire deaths compared with the year before. Fire service reductions and cuts are also seen in the U.S. National Fire Service Budget. Cities in Missouri, California, and Maryland have closed a few fire departments. Analysts worry that some of the cuts could be putting people and property in danger.
- Hoarding: Hoarding is a relatively new risk related to the accumulation of items in the living environment. Hoarding increases fire load, worsen the occupant’s chances for escaping, and put firefighters at risk because of obstructed exits and falling objects. Studies have found that hoarding usually begins in early adolescence and gets worse as a person ages. It is more common among older adults. Studies show that compulsive hoarding affects up to six percent of the population or 19 million Americans, and it has been found to run in families (Frost, Steketee, and Williams 2000).
- Firesetting: Firesetting is a behavior that often results in legal and mental health system involvement (Hoerold and Tranah 2014). More than 62,000 arsons are committed annually in the U.S., with nearly $1 billion in losses per year (Dolan et al. 2011). Fires are often set by individuals with psychiatric and substance use problems (Dolan et al. 2011). Thus, firesetting is frequently encountered by mental health experts in consulting on legal cases. Despite the prevalence of such cases in the courts, minimal attention has been paid in the literature to conducting arson-related forensic evaluations.
- Criminal activity: High crime rates in poor neighborhoods also lead to an increased fire risk for populations living in poverty. On the surface, this may appear to be an obvious conclusion, particularly to those in the fire service who deal with this issue on a regular basis. In metropolitan neighborhoods with high crime rates, being poor carries an added risk of home invasion and associated violent crimes. This apprehension often supersedes the fear of fire by arson or other means and leads to increased security measures, such as burglar bars. In the years between 1986 and 1991, nearly 16 fire deaths annually could be attributed to these security devices (Dolan et al. 2011); (Hoerold and Tranah 2014).
- Aging Population: The world’s population is aging. Virtually every country in the world is experiencing growth in the number and proportion of older persons in their population (United Nations 2015). Population aging—the increasing share of older persons in the population—is poised to become one of the most significant social transformations of the 21st century, with implications for nearly all sectors of society, including labor and financial markets, the demand for goods and services (housing, transportation and social protection), and family structures and intergenerational ties (United Nations 2015). Older people (65+) have an increased risk of fire fatality, making up 66 percent of all fatalities (Elder, Squires, and Busuttil 1996). People aged 65 and older are 3.7 times as likely to be a fire fatality as the general population (Elder, Squires, and Busuttil 1996).
- Poverty: Poverty affects fire safety risks. Children from minority, low-income families were far more likely to be killed in a residential fire than other children from more favorable economic conditions (Collins 2012). One study looked at 3,179 patients admitted to the Shriner's Hospital for Children in Galveston, Texas, from 1985 through 2001, and results showed children from low-income families were three times more likely to die as a result of a residential fire than nonminority children from higher-income families (Peck and Pressman 2013). Other recent studies have shown even more profound effects of poverty on fire risks. A child from the lowest social class in the United Kingdom is 16 times more likely to die in a house fire than one from a wealthy family (WHO Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data 2014).
- Overcrowding. Often, the poor are faced with economic issues that force consolidation of several incomes, often from different families, to secure adequate housing. This increased number of individuals in a household often leads to family instability, which has been noted by some researchers as the highest characteristic related to fire risk (Wu, Wang, and Guo 2015). In a 1978 study conducted in Syracuse, New York, crowded living conditions that led to family instability were shown to produce four times the number of fire deaths per 1,000 population than less crowded residences. In most instances, these fire victims were also identified as poor (Jennings 2013).
The problems listed above did not arise yesterday. Socioeconomic causal factors identified by previous research included elderly individuals, disabled individuals, those living alone, and those for whom smoking and alcohol consumption is an issue (Leth, Gregersen, and Sabroe 1998); Holborn, Nolan, & Golt, 2003).
More recent problems related to several years of ongoing changes in regulations, new building materials, and other challenges. These problems are not independent of each other, and in fact they are often complementary and interconnected.
It seems that more emphasis must be made on prevention, public education, community risk reduction, and code adoption to reduce the number and severity of fires and fire risks at all (Stittleburg 2013). Civilians are not the only target group exposed to increased fire risks. On average, more than 60 firefighters die every year in the line of duty only in the United States (“Firefighter Fatalities in the United States,” 2015).
Notably, risk factors associated with unintentional house fire incidents, injuries, and deaths in high-income countries have increased in the past five years. It seems that fire safety is more and more a social problem, and we must find a systematic and sustainable approach to resolve it. It appears that we must upgrade existing fire prevention methods.
FIRE PREVENTION AS A SERVICE
Let’s speculate and look at fire prevention as a service. Like any other service, fire prevention has its suppliers, distributors, and beneficiaries. It should be noted that fire prevention as a service is provided free of charge and is readily available for everybody within a local community and the households. Fire prevention activities within a business are usually the business owner’s burden, including financial and legal responsibility.
The target areas where we must focus our fire prevention and education activities are local communities, households, and businesses, whereas the target groups or beneficiaries represents kids, youth, adults, elderly, vulnerable groups, and firefighters (Fig. 1).
Figure 1: Fire prevention target areas and groups
From the broad perspective, we have three sectors potentially dealing with fire safety problems: private sector, public sector, and the nonprofit sector. It’s predominantly the public sector that deals with fire prevention.
Traditionally, each of the three sectors maintains the distinct roles and approaches —with the private sector focused on profitable markets, the public sector solving market failures, and the non-profit sector engaging citizens in meeting societal needs.
Since the 1990s, however, several trends have altered these distinctions, increasingly blurring the social and economic roles that businesses, government agencies, and nonprofits are playing. Governments are stepping out and deregulating the codes, closing fire departments.
The private sector is very often not aware of the vital role of fire prevention when it comes to competitiveness. The nonprofit sector is constantly faced with funding problems and increased social problems, such as crime and opioid crisis, poor access to healthcare facilities, and poverty.
It is evident that existing collaboration simply doesn’t allow for sustainable solutions that would at the same time capture as many beneficiaries as possible.
Finding a solution to fire prevention-related problems apparently points in different directions. Recent trends suggest rigorous control and better regulations (Kirkpatrick, Hakim, and Glanz 2017; O’Sullivan 2017). Another proposal is about sustainable delivery of fire prevention as a service and building community resilience through social entrepreneurship (Morrison, Ramsey, and Bond 2017).
Ales Jug is an assistant professor at Becker College and current chairman of the Fire Prevention Tommission at CTIF (International Association of Fire and Rescue Services) and president of fire prevention commission at firefighters association of Slovenia.
He holds a Ph. D. from Faculty of Maritime Studies and Transport, Slovenia (2011).
He went on to earn a master’s degree in fire protection engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He thought courses in fire dynamics, disaster management, risk assessment, etc. at Faculty of Chemistry and Chemical Technology (University of Ljubljana) and the Slovenian Firefighting Academy.
He is a certified firefighter and senior fire officer. Dr. Jug has supervised and participated in several national and international research projects, supported mainly by European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. He is also a technical expert in European Civil protection team. He presented papers at many research conferences worldwide, and is currently completing Ph.D. degree in Business administration with a concentration in social entrepreneurship at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
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