Fire Prevention Week has been around so long nearly every living American likely has heard one of its fire safety messages. For the past 92 years, during the first week of October, the President of the United States encourages everyone to emphasize fire safety in their lives. Several jurisdictions stretch out the nation’s longest-running public health observance for a month.
But we can’t stop there. Fire prevention should be on our minds every day. Fire destroys lives and property year-round and an unrelenting, continuous approach is necessary to fight it.
When Fire Prevention Week was created in 1925, it was a novel idea for many reasons. First, it was intended to change the message of how the public commemorated the Great Chicago Fire. For two days, Oct. 8-9, 1871, this famous fire raged through 3.3 square miles of the North Side of the city. It killed more than 250 and left 100,000 homeless, not to mention the devastation it caused to thousands of homes and businesses. As the city rebuilt, rumors of how the fire began (an unattended lantern being kicked by the O’Leary cow) grew. The heroism of the firefighters, the bravery of the survivors, and the urban legend of the ignition created a festive air when the commemoration happened each anniversary.
Less than 250 miles away from Chicago, the Peshtigo Fire in Northeastern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, also occurred Oct. 8, 1871. It burned 12 communities and killed more than four times as many people and scorched 600 times as much land. An uncontrolled burn to remove debris near train tracks was the cause of this fire, but there is no definitive proof what started The Great Chicago Fire. Both fires captivated the nation for decades. President Calvin Coolidge wanted America to have a renewed focus on keeping citizens safe, so fires would no longer wipe out entire communities. Safety, not destruction, should be celebrated.
Fire Prevention Week was designed to empower the public. In 1924, President Coolidge noted 15,000 lives and $548 million — or $7.8 billion in today’s money — were lost to fire, and “a major portion of it is preventable.” These losses created “a sense of horror and shame,” Coolidge wrote in his first proclamation of Fire Prevention Week. At the time, he was looking for a way to conserve the nation’s resources of life and property in order to promote the national economy. The more fires that ruined communities, the worse it would be for the country.
President Coolidge recommended the first week of October be set aside by various organizations to help the public assist with his vision. His wish was for government, civic organizations, private entities, clergy, school authorities, and the press to work together to reduce the amount of lives and property lost to fires. That first week in 1925 was sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association, and it has been ever since.
By naming these types of organizations, President Coolidge indirectly created a task force. It was no longer the sole responsibility of the government to keep citizens safe. As two of its fire prevention tactics, the government worked to have better engineering and enforcement. Building design and code enforcement has certainly helped to reduce the number of fire victims by having better alarms, escape paths and fireproof materials to slow the spread of fire.
Lastly, fire departments and school officials were encouraged to educate students on proper fire prevention and response behavior. Private entities, civic organizations, clergy, and others assisted by advocating safe practices inside the home and around the community. The idea was fire prevention would be on everyone’s mind.
For more than two decades (1924 to 1946), the number of lives lost to fire decreased, but the death toll still climbed to more than 10,000. The amount of property lost was nearly $6 billion in today’s dollars. As such, President Harry S. Truman declared it “the most disastrous [year] in our history with respect to fire losses.” In the public’s mind, the LaSalle Hotel in Chicago (61 deaths), the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta (119 deaths), and the tenements of New York City (8 deaths, 38 missing) fires were compelling enough reasons to continue tackling this issue. Thus, in 1947, President Truman held a conference of 200 heads of various organizations to solve the problem of deadly fires. The conference had focus groups in building construction and protection, firefighter education, fire prevention education, law enforcement related to fires, organized public support and research. He also noted in his address to the conference-goers, “Safety from fire should not be a topic for discussion during only one or two weeks of the year. It is definitely a year-round public responsibility … But the impetus must come from the States and from every community and every individual in the land.”
In 1974, Congress passed the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act in response to one of the most popular reports in American fire service, America Burning. It reported fires annually caused 12,000 deaths, 300,000 serious injuries, and $11.4 billion — $56 billion in today’s money. It appears President Truman’s workgroup was not as successful, but it prepared the groundwork for a multi-faceted approach in the public risks and the people who sat at the table to reduce those risks. The Act also established the National Fire Academy, created the National Fire Data Center, and promoted technology development. By promoting from the highest level possible, the federal government created a standard and a guide map for how to fight fires and save lives.
Due to the efforts of these individuals and the continued efforts of organizations today, our fire deaths have decreased generally each year across our country. One death is one too many, and the number of fire victims is nearly 3,000 yearly. Reported annual property damage is $14.3 billion. Fire prevention is based on best practices and research. Enforcement, education and engineering play an active role in local, state and federal fire service agencies.
At the South Carolina state level, enforcement, education, and engineering are staffed by professionals who make a difference in preventing ignitions and reducing the risk of loss of life and property.
These days, when a non-fire service civilian thinks of Fire Prevention Week (or month), poster contests and a firefighter putting on bunker gear for a class demonstration may come to mind. A citizen may not realize the fire alarm in his or her commercial office building is the result of years of fire prevention problem-solving by previous generations. Also, with advanced technology, a hearing-impaired person is able to feel the shake of a bed-installed alarm and escape a fire before a fatal injury occurs. Fire extinguishers are not just on the fire truck — they are in churches, hospitals, coffee shops and homes. Every maximum occupancy sign in a lobby is a reminder of what can happen when society does not prioritize fire safety. All of these, and more, are just the beginning of ways we can keep everyone safe from fires.
The phrase “Community Risk Reduction” is heard just as often as “fire prevention,” and sometimes heard as two mutually exclusive ideas. Modern fire prevention is a way to keep citizens safe by having many people work through many ideas. Community risk reduction involves, just as the name implies, the community. Who better to understand the community’s problems more than the community itself? While federal and state governments can provide direction and money, local governments and organizations work directly with the public. The local community understands the risks, priorities and solutions that will solve the problem of fire deaths.
The biggest difference is not all the risks a community faces are exclusive to fires. Community Risk Reduction is also a process of calculating where the likelihood of certain hazards will take place. Chances are these hazards impact a person being aware of a fire or being able to escape from a fire, as well as impact their life with other emergencies or unfortunate events. To assist with this effort, Vision 20/20 is the national guide for assisting local jurisdictions with strategies and resources. A new program “Fire Safe South Carolina” is the state’s way of bringing interested community partners together to alleviate the risks in their own communities. These programs go beyond the “once-a-year” approach by having communities promote fire prevention every day to everyone.
A new way can be unsettling, but if history has anything to say about it, working together will bring us ever closer to our goal.