It’s been 10 years since the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation published its 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives as part of its Everyone Goes Home Program. Following these initiatives, the U.S. Fire Administration set a national goal of reducing line-of-duty firefighter deaths by 50 percent within the decade.
The 16 initiatives have been a vital rallying call to unite the fire service. Every preventable death is a success, but we have more work to do. There were 104 on-duty firefighter deaths reported in the U.S. in 2004, according to NFPA. Over the next nine years, the numbers of fatalities were down in most years. There were 97 on-duty deaths in 2013.
In Illinois, firefighter deaths have declined to four in 2013 from highs of eight or nine in 2006, 2008, and 2009. How much of this improvement is due to firefighters embracing, or even understanding, Initiative #15, which states, “Advocacy must be strengthened for the enforcement of codes and the installation of home fire sprinklers?”
Too often, discussion of these important Initiatives, including #15, elicits blank stares among firefighters. We need to improve both awareness and understanding of each initiative. Why is this important to home fire sprinkler advocacy? If we let another 10 years go by with only some firefighters learning about all of these Initiatives, especially #15, we risk losing firefighter lives in structures that could have been sprinklered. Furthermore, we lose another 10 years of opportunities for firefighters to use their daily interactions with the public to underscore the need for adopting model codes and sprinklering in new homes.
The public needs basic facts about home fires and sprinklers. We know that not every community in Illinois has been able to provide that basic information. The sad truth is that in those communities where new homes are built without fire sprinklers, the resulting homes are substandard. By embracing Initiative #15, firefighters can help Illinois communities build safer homes that protect residents and firefighters.
The Illinois Fire Sprinkler Coalition has developed a 10-minute drill and a half-day drill based on a two-page descriptive flyer that includes messaging on Initiative #15. These options allow for a quick or long lesson, depending on your needs and capabilities. If conducting these drills, make it meaningful and memorable by incorporating props, such as an NFPA 13D simulator, mobile fire sprinkler demo trailer, or materials from the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition. These can be supplemented by sharing educational videos by HFSC and the Fire Sprinkler Initiative.
These drill are crucial since confusion and misinformation exist about home fire sprinklers. This is compounded by powerful, anti-sprinkler code activity that impacts code adoptions as well as voluntary installation of sprinklers in new homes. If firefighters aren't aware of the importance of home fire sprinklers, how can we expect the public to understand?
We can’t. The public needs strong advocates in every community. Firefighters can level the playing field when they articulate both the dangers of home fires and the unparalleled life-saving benefits of home fire sprinklers.
Firefighters need to have a broad base of understanding and support of the model code process. We can achieve this through more formal education and through more coalition activities. Coalitions are all about grassroots outreach, but we need to be fully educated before we can all move forward. When we commit to making a concerted effort to start at the bottom and solidify the base of firefighter support, we stand a good chance of educating and empowering the upcoming generation to ask for home fire sprinklers.
Let's make the next 10 years the decade of the home fire sprinkler.
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.