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On dead babies, emotions and sprinklers

Babies who die in fires never had a chance to make a fire-sprinkler decision

By Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder, EFO

Years ago I worked for a city manager who used to tell me to "stop bringing up dead babies" in my discussions with elected officials and during public budget hearings. He, of course, didn't want the emotional aspect of what we do as firefighters to influence overall budget decisions.

He had a problem with the fact that the community and the elected officials tended to support the fire department during budget time. I will never understand why that bothered him so much. But, boy did it.

We absolutely get that we have to use raw numbers, facts, various options, and not just emotion when presenting budgets — especially these days when we have to be the best stewards of the taxpayers dollars.

I absolutely get it.

The fact is that there are emotions related to what we do. We are — in many respects — ERM's (Emotional Risk Managers — a new term that we'll have shoulder patches made up for you very soon, promise). We are in the business to help minimize "screaming insane" emotions (such as moms who find out their kids are trapped in a fire) when it comes to those we protect.

In other words, we should do as much as we can to help people have a good or better day. Few would argue that there are very few worse days than those where parents loses their children — the peak of emotions.

A mother's pain
The anti-fire sprinkler gang may choose to ignore Saturday night's fire in Maine — the single-family dwelling fire that took the lives of an Orrington man and three of his children. Dead are 30-year-old Ben Johnson III, his sons Ben, 9, and Ryan, 4, and 8-year-old daughter Leslie.

The sole survivor of the fire was the wife and mom, Christine Johnson, 31, who was rescued from the roof by neighbors and firefighters. She will physically survive from what we have been told.

The fire was reported at 0238 hours by neighbors who heard a woman screaming. The bodies of Johnson and the three children were found a short time after the Maine firefighters entered the burning house.

They may not want to know about the three Wisconsin kids who died in a house fire Thursday in Racine, Wis. Eight-year-old Dalijah Scott and 9-year-old Dayja Scott died when their house caught fire. Their brother, 7-year-old Michael Scott, died later in the hospital. The children's 5-year-old brother, Luther Patterson, is still in the hospital.

Immediately after removing the last child, Racine Fire Chief Steve Hansen had four of his firefighters "literally dropped from (heat) exhaustion." They were treated at the scene, then immediately returned to the house and continued fighting the fire. No surprise.

Who should decide
These fires reminded us that the residential fire sprinkler battles continue. The National Association of Homebuilders and related groups keep fighting. The NFPA has analyzed statements by anti-sprinkler interests in their proposals to diminish or delete the IRC's fire sprinkler requirements. The NFPA's response is right on the chin.

The antis argue that installing residential sprinklers should be up to homeowners. That's like saying speed limits on highways should be up to drivers.

Sometimes, just sometimes, laws have to be in place to protect folks, in spite of ourselves — or to protect those who are too little to make the decision to include residential fire sprinklers.

If these horrific pre-holiday fires don't emotionally impact those who won't support fire sprinkler legislation, then it's further defining of what their true "non-emotional" priorities are.

But you already knew that.

About the author

Chief Billy Goldfeder, a firefighter since 1973, serves as deputy fire chief of the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio. A chief officer since 1982, he has served as a fire chief in Ohio, Virginia and Florida. Chief Goldfeder is a 1993 graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program, the former chair of the International Association of Fire Chiefs VCOS Section. He serves on the boards of directors of the September 11th Families Association, and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Chief Goldfeder also serves on the National Firefighter Near-Miss Reporting Task Force. He and Capt. Gordon Graham founded the websites: and



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Craig Snowberger Craig Snowberger Tuesday, November 13, 2012 4:08:33 AM This has been an on going battle in certain parts of the US for years.The battle continues for Fire Sprinkler Systems in dwellings.Todays modern, progressive Fire Service knows better even as Fire Deaths in dwellings continues to grow.Certain groups of people just don't get the word!
Carl Burney Carl Burney Tuesday, November 13, 2012 4:09:15 PM I've seen plenty of smoldering fires that were not big enough or hot enough to set off a sprinkler but pumped out enough smoke to kill someone. An expensive sprinkler system won't do anything to save a family in the middle of the night that a couple of properly placed and working $10 smoke alarms won't do. Given the minute percentage of homes that ever even have a fire it makes even less sense to mandate expensive sprinklers that will cost even more over the life of the home in maintenance and water damage from leaks and/or accidental discharges than they will ever save in property damage. The above story emotionally tells the sad tale of family tragedies but conveniently neglects to mention whether there were any working smoke detectors. I'm pretty sure there weren't or the point would have been made that the working smoke alarms weren't adequate enough to save the victims. That's the kind of intellectually dishonest bull crap that most of us who are against sprinkler mandates complain about when it comes to having a rational discussion on the cost vs risk factors of whether the law is beneficial or not. It's also ironic the writer mentions speed limits because I have made the point in the past that virtually all traffic fatalities could be eliminated saving far more lives than sprinkler laws if we just lowered all of the speed limits to 10 mph. Mandating sprinklers in single family homes makes about as much sense. Nor does it make sense to think you can legislate every possible negative event from everyone's life.
Fred Corcoran Fred Corcoran Thursday, November 15, 2012 3:32:53 PM I wonder how many "pro sprinkler" types have installed sprinklers in their own homes? The government is not here to protect us from ourselves, the last thing we need is more government intrusion. As far as the speed limit comment goes, we are using public roads where our actions have an effect on the public, so it's not at all the same. Why don't we just mandate that all new construction must be Type I or how about mandating a curfew when it gets dark because 2/3 of all violent crimes are committed after dark? Where does it stop? We all accept a certain amount of responsibility in all aspects of our lives, if you feel you need sprinklers in your home, then by all means install them, but don't force your beliefs on others...
Allen John Cameron Allen John Cameron Friday, November 16, 2012 12:42:16 AM Honor...
Greg Loomer Greg Loomer Wednesday, November 21, 2012 5:12:31 AM $10.00 smoke detectors don't put out fires, sprinklers do. Until you wake up disoriented at 2:00 AM with 3 0r 4 children under your roof and the fire is about to flash over and try and decide who to save first you wont know the true value of a working sprinkler system. I
Jeremy Wallis Jeremy Wallis Sunday, November 25, 2012 10:30:37 AM "Sometimes, just sometimes, laws have to be in place to protect folks, in spite of ourselves — or to protect those who are too little to make the decision to include residential fire sprinklers". I wonder what these same people would say about abortion?

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