"This smoke detector could have prevented this fire death," said past fire chiefs as they held up the fire safety device for reporters. When fire officials make such powerful statements immediately following a major fire, especially if an occupant suffered a burn injury or was killed, they get the full attention of the public.
Of course, the important role smoke detectors play in notifying people of a growing fire is a well-used message in the fire service’s public education efforts. (Per NFPA, working smoke alarms cut the chances of dying in a reported fire by half.) But imagine the impact if fire officials also held up a fire sprinkler and stated, “When smoke detectors are combined with sprinklers, the risk of dying in a home fire decreases by 80 percent.”
One may think that the fire service is very aware of the life-saving benefits of fire sprinklers. As a popular TV commercial for an insurance company states, “Everybody knows that.” But is that the case? In my humble estimation, not by a long shot. Fire sprinkler advocates need to continuously educate firefighters and other fire officials while educating the public and elected officials.
That’s not to say that there have not already been continuous efforts made in the last decade or two. First there was Operation Life Safety, then the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, the International Residential Coalition, and now NFPA's Fire Sprinkler Initiative. All are working hard to disseminate the fire sprinkler concept.
NFPA is fully committed to fire safety; the statistics, documents, reports, and programs are all in place. All that is needed is the initiative by fire sprinkler advocates to increase public education in their communities. To do this, each and every fire official needs to be ready with a fire sprinkler and a smoke alarm in their turnout gear pocket at all times.
Whether at a fire scene or a public education presentation, fire officials can customize the statement any way they choose, but the comments should be based on NFPA-researched facts and documented reports. The media will take it from there. The use of the props usually results in a photograph or video to accompany the quote, which helps the public associate an image with the facts.
When I have been interviewed following high-rise fires in Chicago, I’ve always carried a couple of fire sprinklers with me, along with a copy of NFPA 101, Life Safety Code®. The TV segment showed the props, and photographers used the images for newspapers and accompanying websites. It helped start the conversation about sprinklers.
Every fire, though an unfortunate situation, is an opportunity to get the undivided attention of the public, the media, and decision-makers. Fire officials who believe in the model codes and the importance of Firefighter Life Safety Initiative #15 should not miss the educational opportunity presented by each fire. The media should be presented with a home fire sprinkler and smoke alarm. It takes two — both smoke alarms and fire sprinklers — to save lives and get the message across.
If you need a fire sprinkler, I’ll be glad to send one. Email me.
This post was written by Tom Lia, executive director of the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting legislation, raising public awareness, and educating code officials and government policymakers on home fire sprinklers. Lia regularly offers his perspective on sprinkler activities taking place in his state and elsewhere.