What is an Accident?

CarolinaFireJournal - By David Greene
By David Greene
01/10/2015 -

I have had the privilege and honor to be serving in the fire service for well over two decades now. Sometimes it feels as if it has only been a year but when I look back at the technology, terminology, and tactics changes, it feels as if it has been three lifetimes. I still can remember when wearing self-contained breathing apparatus and seat belts were optional and reporting required a pen and did not require an Internet connection. The National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) used to have three options for fire cause: undetermined, incendiary and accidental. Undetermined was used when the heat source and item first ignited could not be found. Incendiary was used when someone purposely set the fire. Accidental was obviously used anytime the fire was an accident. At some point — in the blur of the past two decades — NFIRS changed the fire causes to Undetermined, Intentional and Unintentional.

What we are planning for is the conceivable bad thing that can happen at any time to any one of our citizens.

Prior to that change, we often thought of a person who was warming grease to cook French fries and subsequently forgot what they were doing as to have “accidentally” burned up their house. Prior to the NFIRS change, an unattended cooking fire was labeled as just that, “accidental.” Certainly at this moment there is a fire department somewhere in the southeast that is being dispatched to a “motor vehicle accident.” Again, we often do not think that someone purposely runs through a red light and collides with another vehicle, therefore it is an accident.

The same “accidental” fire designation used to be assigned to inappropriate disposal/discarded smoking materials. On Oct. 28, 2007, a three-story beach house in Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina, caught fire with 13 college students inside. Tragically, seven of those did not escape and died from smoke inhalation. Many of the survivors indicated that the smoke detectors awakened them “with only moments to spare” with one of the survivors jumping from the third floor into the adjacent canal. The fire was thought to have started from a cigarette that was discarded on an outside deck, which ultimately spread to the interior of the home and quickly spread throughout. There was likely some delay in notifying the fire department, which arrived in four minutes from the alarm, and found the building so well involved that the interior search they attempted was impossible. This fire was labeled in the media as a “tragic accident.”

But, what is an accident?

Merriam-Webster defines an accident as “a sudden event that is not planned or intended and that causes damage or injury.” I am quite sure that the college kid who disposed of the cigarette on the outside porch did not do so with the intent to kill seven of his or her friends. However, was the event planned for? Certainly none of the occupants fell asleep having planned on waking up and making a death-defying leap from the third floor into the adjacent canal in order to survive a rapidly moving fire. The owner of the house had somewhat planned for the events that transpired. That is why smoke detectors were in the house — imagine what the outcome would have been if there were none. Did the fire department plan for this? Absolutely. While they did not fall asleep that night thinking they would be running a multiple casualty fire, we all know that is a possibility at any time. In fact, in our line of work, we plan on the worst-case scenario frequently in our training. The Ocean Isle Beach fire was not intentional. But, by our definition, the Ocean Isle Beach fire was also not accidental.

This is the basis of fire codes enforcement and fire prevention engineering. We put smoke detectors in residential buildings because we plan on them catching fire one day. We put sufficient exits on assembly occupancies because we plan on them catching fire one day. In fire and life safety education, we focus on preventing unsafe behaviors that may lead to fires. Outside of university and college fire departments and divisions, most of us do not address fire prevention with college students. Nor are we telling the five year olds, which are frequently targeted by our educational efforts, “When you grow up and start smoking, remember to properly dispose of your cigarettes lest you may start a fire.” It is certainly more feasible to target the college students.

We need to recognize that we are not trying to prevent accidents. THESE ARE NOT ACCIDENTS as we are planning on them occurring. We are intervening with enforcement, engineering, and education in an effort to prevent death, injury and property loss (bad things). When I am cooking French fries and walk outside, forget about the stove, and subsequently burn my house down, that is not an accident and should have been prevented. When I am texting on my phone, drive my truck through a red traffic light and hit another vehicle, that is not an accident — it is a motor vehicle collision — and could have been prevented. I did not intend to burn down my house or hit those innocent people in my truck, but my intent is irrelevant. At the time that I put firefighters’ lives at risk by responding to and operating at my house fire or I hurt/kill an innocent person in another vehicle, it does not really matter what my intent was. People are at risk or are hurt/killed. Just saying, “I didn’t mean to start that fire where that firefighter died,” does not really help that firefighter’s kids or spouse. Likewise, just saying, “I didn’t mean to hit your car and kill your three year old,” doesn’t really mean anything to the family that lost the three year old. Yes, the incidents are unintentional but they are also not accidents as long as we are planning for them. We plan on them every day when we are monitoring the radio.

The South Carolina State Fire Marshal recently provided me with an excellent contrasting example that I would like to share with you. Consider that you and your best friend are at a party and both of you have too much to drink. Your best friend decides that despite the suggestions of others at the party, her or she will drive home. You, with greater wisdom, decide that you will call for a taxi and retrieve your vehicle from the party the next day. On the way home, your best friend crosses a center line and strikes another vehicle head-on killing a family of four (father, mother, seven year old boy, and three year old girl) on their way home from Christmas shopping. He is subsequently arrested and charged with DWI, vehicular manslaughter, etc.

You, on the other hand, arrive safely at your apartment by taxi. You decide that you will have a few more alcoholic beverages and then smoke a cigarette. Unfortunately, you fall asleep with the cigarette in your hand. It lands on the couch and ignites. You awaken to the smoke detectors and self-extricate and try to find a neighbor to call 9-1-1. The fire department arrives and finds a family is trapped in the apartment above yours. They are extricated and transported to the hospital where they are all pronounced dead. You later learn that the family was a father, mother, seven-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl and they had just arrived home from Christmas shopping earlier that evening. Strangely, you will likely not be charged by law enforcement. Why? Neither you nor your friend intended to kill anyone, but your intent does not really matter, does it? Both of these incidents can be prevented. Neither is an accident.

Remember accidents are not planned for. Most of our citizens do not think about the fire department before they fall asleep each night, but we are there, planning on helping them should they need us for virtually any problem they could encounter. It is likely not possible to get our citizens to plan for every conceivable bad thing that could happen to them. If we could, they might not need us anymore. It is our job to recognize where we can help prevent bad things. Prevention gets a bad rep. But would you rather prevent the family of four from dying or do you want to be the one that has to search for a family of four in an apartment fire, extricate them, and provide them advanced life support only to have them die shortly after? Prevention is extremely important. We are not preventing accidents; we are preventing bad things. What we are planning for is the conceivable bad thing that can happen at any time to any one of our citizens. How many departments are giving prevention efforts as much attention as they are training efforts? Examine your budgets, which line item is bigger, prevention or training? I think I already know. We should adjust our prevention efforts much like we do our training efforts to plan for any and all of the bad things.

Be safe and do good.

David Greene has over 20 years experience in the fire service and is currently the Assistant Chief with Colleton County (SC) Fire-Rescue. He is currently working on his PhD through Oklahoma State University. He is a certified Executive Fire Officer through the National Fire Academy, holds the Chief Fire Officer Designation and is an adjunct instructor for the South Carolina Fire Academy. He can be reached at [email protected].
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