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Will we ever learn from the past?

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Adam K. Thiel Fire News in Focus
by Adam K. Thiel

Will we ever learn from the past?

To me the central lesson of the Triangle fire is as clear today as it was 100 years ago

By Adam K. Thiel

I first heard about the Triangle fire almost 20 years ago, during my initial firefighter-EMT training as a volunteer in Montgomery County, Maryland. I knew it was bad, but only recently, as we approached today's 100th anniversary, did I learn the details of this terrible event.

While watching a PBS documentary ("Triangle Fire" on American Experience) about the tragedy, I couldn't help but notice that many of the same arguments posed by the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory during the years leading up to May 25, 1911, sounded a lot like excuses that I've heard, during my career, for failures to address basic fire protection and life safety issues in buildings.

What's especially discomforting is that sometimes I've heard fire service colleagues express similar views; perhaps influenced by their bias for action ("doing the job") versus the relatively mundane tasks associated with fire prevention activities.

I also think it's interesting that, while we've had a number of tragic fires claiming multiple victims since 1911 (Cocoanut Grove nightclub, Beverly Hills Supper Club, the Hamlet chicken processing plant, the Station nightclub, and others), none of them seemed to spark the same kind of lasting changes.

How many of us have been to an overcrowded nightclub lately? Ever find the exit doors to an industrial occupancy locked to "control" the workers?Been to a public hearing about loosening restrictions on fireworks?

I wonder when, or if, we're ever going to learn from the past?

To me the central lesson of the Triangle fire is as clear today as it was 100 years ago: the fire service must come together and consistently advocate for a comprehensive approach to fire prevention and life safety as the best, most efficient and effective, way to accomplish our mission of protecting lives and property from the ravages of fire.

About the author

With more than two decades in the field, Chief Adam K. Thiel FireRescue1's editorial advisor is an active fire chief in the National Capital Region and a former state fire director for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Chief Thiel's operational experience includes serving with distinction in four states as a chief officer, incident commander, company officer, hazardous materials team leader, paramedic, technical rescuer, structural/wildland firefighter and rescue diver. He also directly participated in response and recovery efforts for several major disasters including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tropical Storm Gaston and Hurricane Isabel.

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