Walking around the exhibition halls at several large fire service conferences this summer reminded me of how big ‘fire’ is and the number of dollars spent every year protecting lives and property from fire loss. Fire trucks and hoses, pumps and sprinkler systems, alarms and detectors…the expos showcased hundreds of companies and organizations who were there to share information on their products and services that ‘save lives and reduce loss’ to thousands of individuals from around the world. The industry has come a long way in preparing for fire and fire suppression, documenting the fires responded to, and tallying up the annual cost of fire in respect to deaths, injuries and property loss. But we still have far to go in regard to counting the value of fire safety and prevention.
There is a perceived need to devote more resources to fire prevention, but the lack of effectively measuring what ‘didn’t happen’ limits our ability to know if allocating more resources will save more lives, prevent more injuries and protect our property better. And while fire deaths, injuries and dollar loss should be the dominant criteria for evaluating fire prevention success, fire problems vary country to country and region to region. They are impacted variations such as climate, economic status, education, and demographics to name a few. Just counting the problem gets very complicated.
There is plenty of data documenting the fire problem, but little showing that prevention is successful in reducing fires. Without defining the cost-benefits of prevention, additional resources are unlikely to ever be allocated. Measuring results is important, but quantitative measurement isn’t the only way to solve a problem. A qualitative understanding of why fires happen is perhaps even more important in the realm of fire safety and prevention.
Chief J. Robert Ray writes in his whitepaper on Fire Prevention Effectiveness: Can We Measure What Did Not Happen? that, “Fire prevention programs are intended to reduce the fire problem proactively by attacking the root causes of fire, thereby reducing fire deaths, injuries and property loss. To measure fire prevention effectiveness, the fire service needs to distinguish between fires that were the result of preventable causes and those with causes not likely to be prevented…”
Investigating how fires start and how to prevent them from destroying property and life is a crucial science; one that’s been evolving for hundreds of years. The science of fire investigation is beneficial for many reasons beyond identifying arson and ensuring that responsible parties be held accountable. Determining the cause of even accidental fires is the surest way of improving safety practices and practices that could benefit everyone.
An anomaly within the fire investigation industry is that fire investigation is a role for which responsibility and impact is shared by many industries: the fire service, law enforcement and insurance. Whether it’s fire safety and prevention, fire loss claims and litigation, or arson enforcement and prosecution, the fire investigator plays an important role in determining “where” and ”how,” and sometimes even the “why.” It gets complicated because there are many different stakeholders involved in the process and more often than not, the first responder (the fire department) is tasked with making the initial determination. Being first on the scene of a fire loss also carries the responsibility and burden of providing the necessary resources to competently discharge that duty. A weight many departments and communities are unable to shoulder.
Our fire departments and city leadership may understand the impact of the determination of origin and cause, but everyday are forced to make difficult budgetary decisions. The arduous task of defining priorities and aligning resources to critical needs and services may even be the responsibility of someone who doesn’t fully understand the importance and role of safety and prevention. If it’s difficult to count how many fires didn’t occur, it makes sense that fire prevention and associated roles would be some of the easier items to reduce or cut from a tight budget. With the economic crises many of our towns and cities are facing, it’s not even an option.
Another factor may be the ‘it’s not my job’ mentality. Having a clear understanding of prevention and understanding that public safety isn’t limited to only putting the fire out. Seeing the big picture of all of the working parts and how everyone – all of the products and service providers – work together, helps us better understand our individual roles in fire safety and prevention and fire loss. Everyone has a part and important role.
Understanding the importance of fire investigation and determining origin and cause of a fire is a key piece of the fire safety and prevention puzzle. Without understanding where, how and why a fire started, how can it be possible to prevent a similar fire from happening again? Whether natural, unknown, accidental or incendiary, all fires need to be investigated. Working together and making continued improvements in the field of fire safety and prevention is our surest path to protecting our families and communities from one of the most destructive forces on earth…fire.