A firefighter’s ‘aha’ moment: ‘The codes are written in the blood of past victims’

Key realizations about the impact of fire prevention and CRR efforts


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This article is reprinted with the permission of the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

By Chris Collins

I began my professional fire service career almost nine years ago.

I can remember vividly the process leading up to my eventual hiring date. The civil service test, physical agility test, the day the hiring list came out and I saw my name in the top five — and the anxiety of waiting for “the call.”

While performing home safety visits, it became clear to us that most fires are preventable, and death and injuries are most preventable when the fire does not happen. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/AP Images for LEGO Systems, Inc.)
While performing home safety visits, it became clear to us that most fires are preventable, and death and injuries are most preventable when the fire does not happen. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/AP Images for LEGO Systems, Inc.)

That call came a few days over one year after I had taken the test.

My first day is still clear in my memory, and I can recall the nervous excitement of walking up to the station, seeing all the strange tools I would eventually learn how to use, what they are called, and where they are placed on the fire apparatus.

I would be required to memorize every street in the City of St. Albans and know multiple ways to get to a single address. I would be required to learn hydrant locations, how much water each of them flowed, and much more the public is not aware of.

The next few months would be spent with the most physically demanding training I have ever done. The following three years would be spent continuing this training, along with mentally demanding book work, and the monthly required training required to accomplish the Professional Firefighter Journeyman Program.

All of this was designed to prepare me to respond to any type of emergency required by the citizens confidently and efficiently. Every professional firefighter must complete these rigorous steps.

‘These codes were developed to learn from the past’

As I progressed in my career, I was approached by our chief about becoming a certified fire inspector. I told him I did not become a firefighter to inspect buildings, but he told me to take the class — try it out, and if I didn’t like it, I could let him know. I agreed and began the nine-month course.

During the time I began taking this course and performing my “practice inspections,” a funny thing happened. It occurred to me that preventing fires will save many more lives than simply waiting until they happen and responding. It is the difference between being proactive and only reactive.

While our department is one of the best (if not the best) in the state at responding and mitigating emergencies, up to that point we did not focus much on community risk reduction (CRR) by being proactive.

The more I became immersed in fire code inspections and studied fire service history, the more I realized prevention is especially important in reducing injury and death.

I realized the codes I was studying and would eventually be enforcing are all written in the blood of past victims. These codes were developed to learn from the past. This was one of my “aha” moments in my fire service career.

‘Death and injuries are most preventable when the fire does not happen’

Another “aha” moment in my fire service career was when our department was awarded a grant to travel to Nashville and attend a fire and fall prevention program from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

This program focused on the value of preventing fires and injury-causing falls in the homes of the elderly population. This program revolved around home safety visits and group presentations. These home safety visits are not “inspections,” and we do not enforce any sort of rules but simply recommend best practice mitigations.

The most common hazard found was an inadequate number of smoke alarms, or smoke alarms that were older than 10 years, which leads to a less effective early warning notification.

Common hazards were also a lack of carbon monoxide alarms, trip hazards, dangerous use of extension cords, space heater misuse, and more.

While performing these home safety visits, it became clear to us that most fires are preventable, and death and injuries are most preventable when the fire does not happen.

Up to this point, as a fire inspector I had been focusing most of my prevention efforts on commercial properties. While commercial properties must be held to a minimum standard for the safety of the public and fire service personnel, commercial properties are not where most fire deaths occur.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, residential is the leading property type for fire-related deaths (75%), fire-related injuries (77.1%) and fire dollar loss (43.3%).

For this reason, I approached our fire chief about developing a robust CRR plan. This plan included not only our fire and fall prevention program but also a focused partnership with outside agencies to provide (at no cost) smoke and carbon monoxide alarms to any St. Albans city resident.

According to 2017 data from the USFA obtained from the National Center for Health Statistics, West Virginia led the nation in per capita fire deaths. West Virginia residents are statistically at a high risk for dying in a fire compared the rest of the country. According to the 2017 data, in the United States, an average of 11.2 per million of population died in a house fire; in West Virginia, that number was 29.2 per million of population. Over two-and-a-half times the national per capita fire deaths!

Why is our fire death rate so high? I do not have the specific answer to that question, and I suspect it has a complex, multifaceted answer. I can assure you there are folks working on lowering this number from some local levels up to the State Fire Marshal’s office.

I can give you this encouraging statistic: According to the NFPA, you are over twice as likely to survive a residential fire when working smoke alarms are present. The NFPA data says three out of five fire-related deaths happened when either no smoke alarms were present (40%) or no alarms that were working (17%).

For this reason, and many more I hope to write about in the future, the St. Albans Fire Department is constantly working to develop and maintain a strong, multifaceted approach to CRR, and increase the safety of our citizens and firefighters while decreasing the number of fires and other community risks through proactive, community-based programs.

[Read next: 5 ways to incorporate CRR into your volunteer fire department]

About the Author

Chris Collins is a lieutenant and fire marshal with the St. Albans Fire Department in West Virginia. He can be contacted at safdffcollins@gmail.com.

Editor’s Note: What are your fire service ‘aha moments’? Share the epiphanies that impacted your career in the comments below or with editor@firerescue1.com.

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