Why every fire service leader should read ‘America Burning’
Having a foundational understanding of our history is essential to seeing the bigger picture for our future
While the American fire service can trace its roots back to days of Benjamin Franklin, it wasn’t until 1947, when President Harry S. Truman held the first Conference on Fire Prevention that the country’s fire problem was addressed in such an official capacity. That event brought together the highest officials of municipalities, states, the federal government, and national groups interested in fire prevention and life safety. The conference was heralded as the first attempt at approaching the fire problem on a truly national basis.
Within the first year after the Forum, fire safety committees were established in 34 states with 18 holding their own fire safety conferences. After that first year, National Fire Prevention Week activities were held in more than 1,800 municipalities, more than double the year prior. The National Education Association also established a fire prevention education program.
The 1947 Truman Fire Forum has been recognized as foundational in the fire prevention arena, but much more needed to be done, and substantive change would take many more years. Finally, 26 years later, the “America Burning” report was the next critical step in moving the fire prevention needle forward.
1973: Critical changes
The 1973 “America Burning” report is likely the most significant driver of change in the fire service, and it continues to guide decision-making today. The report created a national momentum – a focus on fire prevention and life safety not previously seen.
The report’s 90 recommendations laid the groundwork for fire prevention that we now call community risk reduction, emphasizing the need for local fire prevention programs and advocating for “built-in fire safety measures” in the effort to minimize major disasters. Those recommendations, local programs, and built-in fire safety measures continue to lead our CRR programs today – 50 years later.
The report’s first recommendation laid the foundation for our establishment of the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), and recommendations 20 through 23 laid the groundwork for a National Fire Academy. The entire report focused a generation of fire service leaders on the national fire problem, and our internal fire service problems, in the United States.
Further recommendations breathed significant life into the National Bureau of Standards, today’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and higher education in fire service engineering standards.
1987: ‘America Burning,’ revisited
Revisited by the USFA in 1987, “America Burning” and its revisions were stewarded by political and fire service juggernauts that molded many of today’s fire service leaders’ career trajectories. The 1987 report refreshed data from the 1973 report, and more importantly, documented a “declining” fire problem in the United States.
Attendees at the 1987 conference were divided into 7 task forces, each focusing on specific areas that needed to be reviewed and refocused. Each task force provided recommendations with their individual reports. Noting improved fire prevention overall; building codes, public education, public awareness, and widespread smoke alarm availability since the 1973 report, the 1987 report also provided an updated analysis of the reports original 90 recommendations.
2023: Still burning
The “American Burning” reports are not only still valid today, they are the blueprint for the modern fire service’s focus on fire prevention and life safety efforts.
We are constantly reminded of the tragic consequence of our national fire problem, from the high-fatality fires in the Northeast during 2022 to the growing wildland-urban interface fires spreading across the country, to fire-as-a weapon, to the rapid effect of fire on lightweight and synthetic materials, to battery-operated-vehicle fires.
Let us make no mistake, from the advent of smoke alarms for early warning and residential sprinklers providing extra time to escape, to drones and software capabilities, the fire service has made significant progress, yet the fire problem continues to evolve. Social media education and the installation of residential automatic extinguishing systems hold incredible promise for continued progress on the fire problem in the United States.
Building upon the blueprint
While “America Burning” remains our blueprint for future success, our U.S. fire administrator, Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, has made data the next layer of our blueprint. Data will drive the continuing evolution – or as the revisited report calls it, the revolution – in the fire service.
I encourage every firefighter to read “America Burning” for a better perspective on our current fire problem in the United States and why we still face so many of the same challenges from 50 years ago. Having a foundational understanding of our history is essential to seeing the bigger picture for our future. We must embrace the challenge to not only respond professionally and effectively, but to also collect and analyze the data from that service. We are seeing how a data-centered approach can drive change – and how data will help us ultimately reduce the number of fires and fire deaths.
Here we are 50 years later, and yes, America is still burning! The good news: We’ve got the knowledge and expertise to fix this problem. It’s beyond time for us, as a society, to do the right thing with respect to fire prevention and control. Let’s do everything we can as fire service leaders to extinguish the fire that is consuming us!