Why fire prevention is a core fire service function

The fire service can reduce civilian fire deaths by shifting its attitude, data collection practice and funding priorities

The one thing I have learned from living in Alabama is that college football is almost a religion. You are either Roll Tide or War Eagle; there is no in between.

For all practical purposes, the Roll Tide Nation owns this state. They have 16 national championships and have turned out some of the greatest NFL players including the most recent Hall of Fame inductee, Kenny "The Snake" Stabler.

Aside from football, we have one of the finest state fire colleges in the nation. During my time with Columbia Southern University, we established a partnership with the Alabama Fire College to serve as a regional training center. I trained firefighters from around the country and all over the world, including those serving in the Department of Defense in the Middle East.

Allan Rice, director of the Alabama Fire College, also serves as the president of the North American Fire Training Directors. Rice is a Florida State fan and bears the good-natured wrath of the SEC folks.

But wait, there's more. In 2014, my friend and colleague Fire Chief A.J. Martin of the Tuscaloosa Fire and Rescue Department was named Alabama Career Fire Chief of the Year, Southeastern Career Fire Chief of the Year and International Career Fire Chief of the Year all in the same year.

Now you may ask, where am I going with all of this Alabama stuff? Well, there is another category where Alabama is among the top-ranked in the nation, and we're not proud of it.

Dubious honor
For the last several years, Alabama has been among the top in civilian fire deaths — something that no state should desire to be at the top of the list in. Residents of Alabama have a greater risk of dying in fires than those in most other states.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, Alabama ranks third for deadly fires per capita only behind the District of Columbia and Mississippi.

Like most states, the very poor, the very old and the very young suffer the most. And like most other states, unattended cooking, careless use of smoking products, space heaters and extension cords as well as unsafe storage of combustibles are the leading causes of fires that kill Alabama residents.

While that is bad news, Alabama has answered the call with championship focus and determination. The charge was, and still is, being led by Chief Martin and our recently retired State Fire Marshal Ed Paulk.

I recently sat down with Chief Martin while attending the very first Alabama Fire Safety Summit hosted by the National Fire Protection Association at the Alabama Fire College to talk about the Turn Your Attention to Fire Prevention campaign.

The campaign is endorsed by the Alabama Fire Marshal's Office, Alabama Fire Marshal Association, Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs and the fire chiefs' associations of Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and West Virginia.

In the beginning
In 2014, after reviewing the statistics for the previous years, State Fire Marshal Paulk reached out to the Alabama Association of Fire Chiefs for help finding an intervention for this civilian fire death epidemic plaguing the state.

Chief Martin invited key state fire service leaders to a meeting with the directive that invitees not send a representative but attend in person. All who were invited attended. The outcome was to embrace fire prevention as a core service.

Those who know me know this struck a chord in my heart. I have written, presented and advocated nationally that we fail to meet our mission of protecting lives and property because we are a predominantly reactive service.

I get it. Fire prevention isn't sexy or exciting. But I guarantee that we save more lives through prevention than we do through suppression, we just don't know about it.

That does not take away from the need for suppression. When it's time, we roll. And when we roll, we see it on the news, Internet or magazines and that leads to the current culture of what most believe the fire service is about, and it's not prevention.

But if it doesn't happen because it's prevented, then we never know about it. That makes it hard for us to rally around and carry a prevention banner because we only get called for the bad stuff. So that leads to one of the problems — reporting. And the public is partly to blame.

Data mining
But let's face it, our reporting leaves a lot to be desired. My last column "Why Fire Service Data Matters" addressed our shortcomings in data collection and application, as well as its importance.

While we know fire investigation is a tricky and difficult process, we also know that we can be guilty of putting junk data in, which results in getting junk data out. Many of the fatal fire causes are either undetermined or under investigation, and seldom change.

In many cases, "undetermined" is legitimate. But we also know that we can be lazy when completing some of our reports. And it's not just that.

Often, we lack the training or personnel to conduct a thorough investigation, thus relying upon outside agencies such as the state fire marshal, ATF and even the private sector. Often, by time the findings are complete, the urgency of prevention has missed its branding, awareness and market time.

A component of education is to encourage the public to communicate with us when an event occurred even if we weren't dispatched.

  • What if we knew about smoke alarm activations that alerted a family?
  • What if we knew about fire extinguisher use for incidents that we weren't called for?
  • What if we knew about grease fires that were extinguished in the home without us knowing?

A matter of priority
Many of the things that we teach, that we could measure our success and include in our data, we know nothing about because the public is either scared to let us know or have never been told that we want to know about it.

The federal government has put a lot of money, time and effort into Zika awareness and control. At the time of this writing, I can only find where one individual has died from Zika in the U.S.

So far this year, we are at nearly 1,400 civilian fire fatalities in the U.S. and 50 here in Alabama. Every year we see similar numbers.

It's time for the fire service to call this an epidemic and demand more funding for our U.S. Fire Administration to help us cure the epidemic.

I could go on and on about all of the reasons and concerns, but let's focus on the mission of the Turn Your Attention to Fire Prevention campaign — that is to erase fire deaths in Alabama.

But the underlying goal is to help change the focus and culture of the state's fire service to embrace that preventing the fire from occurring is the core of our existence.

Hopefully this message will spread across the nation and not just the Roll Tide Nation.

Be safe.

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