50 years of ‘America Burning’: The history behind the landmark report
Decades of deadly fires spurred federal action, culminating in the iconic 1973 publication that remains relevant to the fire service today
“America Burning: The Report of the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control” is – at age 50 – a seminal document in the history of fire prevention in the United States. Published by the federal government in 1973, it has come to be known simply as “America Burning.” The report gained notoriety due to its blunt description of the country’s collective inability to address its long-standing and increasingly deadly fire problem.
In the early 1970s, the U.S. was a member of the world’s leading industrial and scientific superpowers, a technical and economic success story by all accounts. That accomplishment, however, was marred due to America having not just one of the worst fire loss records, but the worst loss record among that select group of superpowers.
“America Burning” describes the country’s appalling fire loss record, stretching back over a century to 1866. Compounding America’s fire problem was the acceleration in the number of fire fatalities from the mid-1930s, onward.
Combustible cities and fire-proof buildings
Late 19th-century urban fires and conflagrations were bad enough – they destroyed considerable property. However, they were not especially fatal. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th-century when the national trend in fatal fires in fire-proof buildings began and continued for decades.
During that time, America saw so many fatal fires in lodging facilities (e.g., hotels, motels and boarding houses) that seasoned travelers would request a room on the first or second floor to improve their survival odds should a fire break out.
In the span of a few years in the 1940s, America saw large loss-of-life fires at the Cocoanut Grove, the Hartford Circus, the LaSalle Hotel, the Winecoff Hotel and many smaller, but still deadly, fires. All were due to basic fire prevention ignorance – a fact well known by those who studied such things. Going to a nightclub or the circus was one thing; staying overnight in a hotel was something else.
America had long fooled itself into believing that so-called fireproof construction, a concept of the fire insurance industry, was enough. It wasn’t. After the 1946 Winecoff Hotel fire in downtown Atlanta, Horacio Bond, a fire engineer with the NFPA, summed it up when he wrote of the many who jumped from upper-story windows to escape flames and smoke: “The thud of bodies hitting Peachtree Street should dispel any notion that fire-proof buildings are safe for people.”
The rash of fire deaths in public occupancies presented a growing problem, compounded by the run of fatal hotel fires. The hotel deaths may have been the tipping point.
Acknowledging the fire problem
It’s not as if Americans had just awoke to a deadly fire problem in 1971. The first formal recognition of a national fire problem by the federal government occurred in 1947, when then-President Harry Truman convened an official White House Conference on Fire Prevention, putting military officials in charge of leading the conference, along with civilians from the fire field.
Each morning of the conference, attendees listened to music from a different U.S. military band during breakfast; Truman himself gave the opening remarks. In the end, the conference takeaway was the need to study the problem further. The final conference report stressed the need for a dedicated fire research program, particularly regarding large-scale urban fires and wildland fires.
Fire research by federal agencies began in the 1950s, and the concern for the fire problem continued into the 1960s. In 1966, a gathering of fire service leaders known as The Wingspread Conference gained the attention of members of Congress who supported fire prevention.
Finally, in 1968, Congress passed federal legislation and approved funding for a dedicated national fire commission to study the country’s fire problem.
Incremental change adds up to major shift
Little changed after the 1947 conference, but one lasting, positive outcome was recognizing the need to educate and train firefighters in an organized and orderly manner. As a result, many states created firefighter training programs to be delivered by trained vocational instructors, frequently in firefighters’ home station. Previously, most training was only available in the largest cities.
Another outcome of the conference saw the federal government funding dedicated, long-term fire research to address large-scale urban conflagrations and wildland fires. The federal Committee on Fire Research studied multiple fire scenarios from 1956 to 1962. In its report, the committee identified the need for expanded fire research activities – while America’s fire problem continued unabated.
Congress would eventually pass the Fire Research and Safety Act of 1968. This law directed that a national commission be established for research into the hazards of death, injury and property damage caused by fire.
The act, also known as Public Law 90-259, authorized a 20-member commission to conduct a two-year study to determine effective measures for reducing the destructive effects of fire. President Richard Nixon officially appointed The National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control in June 1971.
Action steps identified in ‘America Burning’
The members appointed to the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control (NCFPC) were professionals committed to fire prevention. The commission members also performed their own research, relying on only a small staff of government aides to document their findings in a report.
Throughout 1972, the NCFPC conducted regional hearings across America, surveying communities about fire and burn incidents. The completed reported, titled “America Burning: The Report of the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control,” was delivered to the president in May 1973.
The Commission identified the causes of America’s fire problem and why efforts to make changes failed. According to the report, “the efforts of individuals and organizations in the fire protection field have run against the twin tides of ignorance and indifference – tides which contribute substantially to the extraordinary magnitude of the fire problem in the United States.”
The Commission identified areas of neglect and failure, stressing that action must be taken, including:
- More emphasis on fire prevention;
- Better training and education for firefighters;
- Additional community education on fire dangers;
- A reduction in building design and materials hazards; and
- Improved fire safety features in public and private structures.
The commission also called for the establishment of a U.S. Fire Administration, with a mandate to:
- Develop a comprehensive national fire data system to help establish priorities for research and action;
- Monitor fire research in both the governmental and private sectors, to assist the interchange of information and to encourage research in areas that had been neglected;
- Provide block grants to states so that local governments could develop comprehensive fire protection plans, improve firefighting equipment and upgrade education of fire service personnel;
- Establish a National Fire Academy for the advanced education of fire service officers and to assist state and local training programs; and
- Undertake a major effort to educate Americans in fire safety.
Reading between the lines of ‘America Burning’
“America Burning” is not just a report; it’s America’s fire story laid bare. It highlights the country’s complacent attitude toward fires – an attitude contrary to basic common sense. It is also the opinion held by at least two U.S. presidents – Truman in 1947 and Nixon in 1973 – and it was the opinion held by the Commission.
The report was widely discussed after its publication. It was intended to motivate people to action. The photographs are black and white, and the images of young burn victims are stark and intended to shock. The pictures of firefighters in action are graphic and depict the risk and dangers they faced.
Most government reports (except the classified ones) are in the public domain. For “America Burning,” there is an exception. While you may freely use the words printed in the Commission’s report, you cannot use the photographs in “America Burning” without permission, as the photos reflect personal human tragedy in the form of pain, suffering and horrible disfigurement
Firefighter impact: Without reservation, the Commission rendered praise on the nation’s firefighters. In “America Burning”, firefighters are featured as heroic figures in the war on fire, as well as victims of the nation’s complacency in terms of injuries suffered and line-of-duty-deaths. They note that, at that time, firefighting was the nation’s most hazardous occupation.
Civilian impact: The Commission also recognized the price paid by civilian casualties of burns and smoke inhalation, offering a glimpse into their suffering in words and heartbreaking images contained in the report. They, too, were victims of the public’s complacency. “America Burning” is about their story, as well.
Local government’s role: The Commission clearly noted that fire prevention and control were traditionally a local government function and should remain so. That said, they called out local governments for their longstanding failures to address their own fire problems, as evidenced by:
- The neglected state of America’s local fire departments;
- The failure to curb arson fires;
- The failure to adopt and enforce building and fire codes;
- The failure to upgrade and repair neglected public water supplies; and
- Zoning codes that failed to control hazardous operations.
The Commission highlighted not just the urban fire problem, but the rural fire problem and wildland fire problem as well.
Hazards approach: The Commission warned of the growing threat of hazardous materials storage and transportation accidents, then a rising trend across the country.
Building construction: The Commission noted that we seemed to be making our built-environment more dangerous. Increasingly, high-rise buildings were going up, built with flammable furnishings, flammable interior coverings and fixtures, unprotected large open areas, unprotected vertical openings, and a lack of automatic fire sprinkler systems.
‘America Burning’ dissemination then, and now
In 1973, people relied on local newspapers, as well as radio and TV broadcasts for daily information. America’s newspapers were critical to bringing stories and events to readers’ front doorsteps. This is how Americans learned about the report and its findings.
“America Burning” was published before personal computers and the internet. If someone wanted a copy of “America Burning,” they would need to write to the Superintendent of Documents at the U.S. Government Printing Office in Washington, D.C., and request a copy. In 1973, the cost was $2.55, or about $17.38 in 2023 when adjusting for inflation.
The federal government no longer prints “America Burning,” as you can simply go online to the U.S. Fire Administration website and download a copy of the scanned, original 1973 report, plus a very brief update statement inserted in 1989. It is rare to see an original copy today.
A limited search of newspaper archives for the 1947 Presidential Conference on Fire Prevention reveals that the conference was mentioned or featured approximately 22,577 times in American newspapers of that era. In contrast, the 1973 “America Burning” report was referenced 290,672 times in American newspapers in the years following its publication.
‘America Burning’: A prized fire service text
I became a firefighter in January 1976 and enrolled in a fire science degree program later that year. “America Burning” was published three years earlier in 1973 and quickly became difficult to find. I had started my own collection of fire texts and wanted a copy for my collection. It took some time, but I eventually found a discarded copy in the trash after a trade show, which I still have.
The recommendations in the report were helpful to many, including myself. For example, after I read the report’s brief mention of smoke and heat detection technology, I shared the information with my dad, selling him on its value for life safety. He promptly purchased a basic battery-powered unit, then selling for $100, the equivalent of $538 today.
For me, “America Burning” holds special meaning that goes beyond words. I don’t know if it affected anyone else, but it affected me. In my copy, I underlined the words that the Commission used to describe the risk firefighters face at every fire; words that stayed with me through my days as a firefighter and words that still apply:
Every fire is a gamble with the unknown, a venture into a unique complex of combustible materials and fire dynamics. Risk substitutes for certainty, intuition for firm knowledge.”
Harry S. Truman Library/Museum Public Papers. “Address at the Opening of the Conference on Fire Prevention.”
- National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. 1947 National Conference on Fire Prevention Papers.
- National Institute of Standards and Technology. President’s Conference on Fire Prevention.
- National Research Council’s Division of Engineering and Industrial Research. The Committee on Fire Research’s Final Report, 1959-1962.
- The Fire Research and Safety Act of 1968. Public Law 90-259
- Act Authorizing Appropriations for the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control. Public Law 95-422.
- National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control.
- The Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974. Public Law 93-498.
- Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974. Briefing Book.
- Boston Globe. “Anne Wight Phillips, at 91; surgeon, fire-safety advocate.”
- Congressional Fire Services Institute. “2023 Dr. Anne W. Phillips Award for Leadership in Fire Safety Education.”
- Comsumer Product Safety Commission. “Revised Residential Fire Loss Estimates for 1980 –1998: National Estimates of Fires, Deaths, Injuries and Property Losses from Non-Incendiary, Non-Suspicious Fires.”
- National Emergency Training Center Library. “History of the U.S. Fire Administration.”