1973 vs. 2023: Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell on 50 years of ‘America Burning’
The landmark federal report marked a turning point for the U.S. fire service in 1973. Five decades later, many of its recommendations remain relevant – and unmet
On Feb. 11, 1968, a widow in Franklin, Pennsylvania, jumped from the second story of her burning home. She survived the fall and the fire, but her 10 children were too scared to follow their mother and were all killed in the blaze.
President Lyndon B. Johnson referenced the tragedy during remarks at the signing of the Fire Research and Safety Act less than a month later: “Just the other week, Mrs. Johnson and I were shocked by a terrible story that we saw in the newspaper: 10 children were burned to death in one awful night. A complete family was wiped out, was destroyed, was no more.”
The Act marked the beginning of the fire service’s pivot toward a focus on data, safety standards and regulations that members rely on today. It was critical, the president said in his speech, to better train and prepare fire crews for the hazards of the job, many of whom were using fire techniques dating “back to the Chicago Fire of 1871.”
“It is a terrible thing when tragedy strikes so often that it no longer even shocks us,” Johnson said. "Man invented fire for his own safety and security, but man has never really learned how to control it.”
Once signed, the Act established the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control, which published the landmark federal report “America Burning” in May 1973.
The report has been used as a guidepost for fire service progress over the last five decades and was the basis for the creation of the U.S. Fire Administration, the National Fire Academy, the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) and the Center for Fire Research within the National Bureau of Standards.
This year marks the 50th anniversary since the publication of the report, and in that time, the fire service has seen a remarkable evolution in terms of safety protocols, particularly in regard to training – but there is more work to be done when it comes to threat realization, prevention, construction materials and emerging technology.
Ahead of the anniversary of the report’s publication, I spoke with U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell to discuss the seminal report that continues to drive fire service planning today, and what the future of a burning America looks like.
During our conversation, Dr. Moore-Merrell discussed the legacy of “America Burning,” as well as which of its recommendations are still unmet 50 years later.
1973 vs. 2023
Moore-Merrell believes the same issues identified by both President Harry Truman’s 1947 Fire Commission on Fire Prevention and Control and “America Burning” still affect the modern fire service today: fire threat indifference, research gaps, a lack or disconnected use of data, spotty code compliance, and a suppression-response-prevention imbalance.
Indifference and complacency
The opening line of "America Burning" notes the alarming apathy with which Americans regarded the threat of fire in 1973: “The striking aspect of the nation’s fire problem is the indifference with which Americans confront the subject.”
The sentiment still rings true, Moore-Merrell said: “It’s abundantly clear that we still have these same problems,” she said. “We need somebody, besides [the USFA and the fire service], to care about people who are dying in fires in this country.”
Reflecting on Johnson’s quote about the loss of shock over repeating tragedies, the U.S. fire administrator believes it’s possible society has moved beyond indifference: “I would dare say we’ve become complacent about the fact that we’ve become indifferent. We are complacent in that we think, ‘It won’t happen to me.’ But it can happen.”
While concerning, the industry’s fire prevention push, particularly at the local level with school children, is focused on fire prevention education, which the administrator is working to expand at the USFA to include more modern prevention and education messaging.
“Today, fire is fast; we’ve got synthetics, we’ve got lightweight furniture, we have lightweight construction,” Moore-Merrell said. “Fire is fast and it’s moving faster through the built environment. You don’t have time to escape anymore. You have to preplan, because what used to buy us time in our structures no longer exists – that’s a huge piece of the fire prevention messaging.”
Lack of research and funding
While the move toward a data-driven approach to life safety is decades-old, it’s still in its infancy in terms of the depth of the data cultivated and the research gaps that prevent action from being taken, as well as an overall lack of investment to adequately fund the needed research to tackle modern challenges.
It’s something the USFA is working to address, the administrator said, even as they continue to assess new emergent concerns: "Over the last 10 years, it’s been fire dynamics, fire movement, flow path, ventilation; we’re looking at different structures with those things, and now we’re looking at lithium-ion batteries. What are the new fire threats?”
Prior to being appointed fire administrator, Moore-Merrell served as president and CEO of the International Public Safety Data Institute. Her concern is not necessarily with procuring and capturing the data, but with the analytics processes revealing the information contained in the data, and ultimately the fire service’s access to it.
“We can't inform or change a problem that we know nothing about, and that's our data problem today,” she said. “We have data that's coming in, but for us to have it usable, it is not near real time; not even close. It's often two years old by the time we're able to assess trends, able to assess the fire problem at the national level, able to really tell the story from our current data practices. Clearly, that’s something that was recognized in 1947, and we’re still experiencing it today.”
Both the original 1947 commission report and “America Burning” reference the lack of concern and outright avoidance of construction recommendations to reduce a structure’s fire risk.
“We have building codes based on fire safety and a lot of builders still do everything they can to thwart those fire safety features,” Moore-Merrell said. “That applies even more today if you look at the wildfire scenario and where we’re building communities in land that was once forested – these areas are fire-prone – therefore the wildland urban interface building code is vital to developing resilience in these communities.”
Prevention vs. response balance
“America Burning” called for fire departments to split their work equally between fire suppression and fire prevention, a lofty goal the country has not yet reached.
“We’re far from that, we’re still in a heavy response mode,” Moore-Merrell said. “We have to because fires are still occurring. We need fire departments to be resourced.”
It’s not about a re-balancing act, she added. It’s about providing adequate funds that allow departments to both respond to conflagrations, as well as invest in additional and advanced prevention education.
“We're not talking about taking suppression resources or response resources and turning them into prevention resources,” Moore-Merrell said. “We're talking about resourcing up fire departments sufficiently, which means additional personnel to do fire prevention because there's got to be a transition point. Until we can affect fire prevention, We've got to have response capability.”
3 inclusions for an updated ‘America Burning’
From a big picture standpoint, there are three modern fire service concerns Moore-Merrell would include if she were compiling a report similar to the 1973 publication.
1. America is still burning. “Fire is a threat to homeland security,” she said, referencing the use of fire in civil unrest protests and to cover up homicides or active shooter attempts.
2. Climate-change driven wildfire and drought. “Not just wildland fire – let’s be clear – it’s community-based, drought-driven conflagration; suburban conflagration. I’m not talking about the wildland impact. To have community impact, I would focus on defensible space and building codes in that environment. If you’re going to live there, then we need you to be a fire-adapted community.”
3. New technology. “Innovation is wonderful until it isn’t. Lithium-ion batteries, electric vehicles, large energy storage facilities – these things we never imagined in 1973. Beneficial innovation can sometimes lead to unintended consequences like a fire threat. This means that we must conduct sufficient research to understand how we can suppress the unintended fires that occur and make these products safer for use.”
‘The fire problem is felt hardest at the community level’
In the 50 years since “America Burning” was first published, the fire service has changed in big ways, but there’s still more to do.
“This was a seminal report; it was monumental,” Moore-Merrell said. “It brought attention that changed the face of the fire service and the fire service along with other efforts like building codes have reduced the fire problem in America, but we are not done.”
More change is needed, and Moore-Merrell is working within the USFA and with the current White House administration to make progress on the fire service path set in motion, first in 1947 with the original commission, and then in 1973 with the publication of “America Burning.”
In her assessment of what needs to be done, Moore-Merrell carries with her a line from the 1973 report that sums up the drive for progress:
The very nature of the fire problem is felt hardest at the community level.”
That is the “why” for most individuals joining the fire service, she believes, and is the driving force behind the fire service’s central mission.
“That, to me, is why we do what we do,” she said. “At the end of the day, we’re here to protect people – and that includes firefighters – from death and injury.”