It is all but impossible to measure the level of tragedy where loss of human life is involved. It may not be the case emotionally, but philosophically, the life of a lonely 95 year old should be worth as much as that of a 6 year old.
What we can say about tragedy is the level senselessness attached to it. There's little we can do to guard against tornados, earthquakes and the like. It is arguable how much we can guard against murderers like those who put Aurora, Colo., West Webster, N.Y. and Newtown, Conn., on the map.
But there should be no argument when it comes to fires in crowded buildings. Whether it's this past weekend's nightclub fire in Brazil or the 1993 fire at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island or the seemingly countless factory fires in developing countries, these are preventable incidents.
And that is extremely tragic.
We know how to prevent these fires. It's not rocket science. It begins with concise and enforced fire codes. It includes multiple, well-marked exits, working fire extinguishers, emergency lighting, fire sprinklers, strict crowd capacity control, safe and up-to-date electrical infrastructure, and staff trained to respond to an emergency.
It includes not allowing obviously dangerous acts within a structure — like setting off pyrotechnics. It includes punishment for violation that outweighs any possible reward.
I've travelled the country and the world and have yet to meet a fire officer who is unready or unwilling to meet these challenges in his or her community. Yet how many of those ready and willing fire officials are unable to address fire code issues?
Make no mistake; this is a moral issue. The ability to prevent Brazil- and Rhode Island-like tragedies comes down to not allowing business interests to trump life-safety interests.
The business of balancing a municipal budget or driving home-construction profits should never take priority over protecting the innocent from the negligent.
I'd venture that a majority of us when visiting public places scan the room for sprinklers, exits, extinguishers and the like — I know I've caught myself doing it more than once. And I'd venture that in many jurisdictions the potential for a Brazil incident exists.
As I watched the news from Brazil play out and revisited video from Rhode Island, my mind visited those places in and near my jurisdiction that make me uneasy.
I also thought of my 20-something children and how similar they are in age to those who died in Brazil or Rhode Island — and how their lives mean as much to me now as they did 15 years ago.
At the next budget session or sprinkler debate, show your elected officials images from Brazil and Rhode Island. Tell them to consider carefully the morality of their choices — for budgetary decisions and ordinance votes are choices.
Ask them to consider the value of the lives of those who make up the public at public places and to be prepared to defend that value in the event of a very preventable tragedy.