Fire Lecture Part I: Fire and Life Safety Ecosystem

FIRE reports from this year’s Worshipful Company of Firefighters’ Fire Lecture where James Pauley, President of the National Fire Protection Association, presented the Fire and Life Safety Ecosystem

This year’s Worshipful Company of Firefighters Fire Lecture was held at the Aviva Building in the City of London on April 30 with presentations from James Pauley, President of the US’ National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), on the Fire and Life Safety Ecosystem model developed by his association, and Roy Wilsher, Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), who presented a practical way forward to deal with the necessary changes emanating from the Grenfell Tower fire. The session was chaired by Jonathan O’Neill, Managing Director of the Fire Protection Association. In the first of a two-part series, FIRE reports on the NFPA’s Life Safety Ecosystem.



Worshipful Company of Firefighters Master Andy Mayes with James Pauley, President of the National Fire Protection Association. Mr Pauley presented his association’s Life Safety Ecosystem: “It’s a strategic way to approach what all of you want to do: keep people and property safe”


National Fire Chiefs Council

James Pauley opened his presentation by describing the origins of the NFPA, which he explained had a long history of working with global authorities to help reduce risk. The association was created in 1896 by a group of insurance directors in the Boston, Massachusetts area looking for a mutual, forward looking solution to various ways that sprinklers were being installed. As a result of the initial consensus building NFPA 13, the Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems was created. At the same time, there were challenges in the electrical industry with five recognised standards which needed consolidating. The first set of stakeholders came together – “as they still do today in our time tested consensus process” – and they created a draft for a universal code. Over 1,200 interested people in North America and Europe vetted the procedure resulting in the National Electrical Code of 1897. “Today in North America and elsewhere the NEC sets the foundation for electrical safety for private, commercial and industrial properties.”

Mr Pauley explained that the NFPA is a mutual, non-profit, non-governmental organisation with a mission to save lives and help to protect property. “We have incredible information and knowledge to share with the myriad audiences that exist, but we can only build on that wisdom by engaging with individuals from around the world.” The association produces more than 300 codes and standards producing relevant training, public education material, championing advocacy and outreach campaigns and raising awareness of fire safety practices. “Fire sprinklers have been one of those items that we have promoted for an extremely long time,” he explained.


“More lives lost, more properties destroyed, more communities that are taxed with responding and rebuilding”


US Snapshot

Mr Pauley provided a snapshot of the fire problem in the United States. “Statistics tell a great story about the progress we have made,” he explained with the number of civilian deaths in the US having fallen by 54 per cent from 1977 to 2017. “Smoke alarms, codes and standards, enforcement, public education have all contributed to reduction in fire deaths and overall loss. But we are painfully reminded every day that we cannot rest on the success that we have had. In the US fire still claims nine lives every day. In 2017 US fire departments responded to a fire every 24 seconds. Thousands of people die from fire in the US alone each year. It’s far too many.

“I would argue with you by the way that one fire death is far too many. Why do I say that? Because we know they’re preventable. That’s the tragedy of the overall statistics.

“Take a look at property loss. In 2017 there is a structure fire every 63 seconds in the US. We had $23 billion in direct property damage due to fire. That is more than doubled from the previous year. Mostly because of a $10 billion losses we had from the wildfires in California. So despite all of our collective efforts fire continues to be an issue in the US, in the UK and around the world.”

It’s a big world, let’s protect it together

Mr Pauley said the message – ‘It’s a big world, let’s protect it together’ – evolved from “the culture, our collaborative approach, our safety contributions over the last century,” is far more than a tagline. “It was our guiding principle that we had. We knew that those words were a call to action that was powerful, but I can’t tell you how profound the plea that’s contained in those words really is.”

Ten days after the slogan was launched, Grenfell Tower happened and within a week of that a wildfire in Portugal took the lives of 66 people. “More lives lost, more properties destroyed, more communities that are taxed with responding and rebuilding.”

In the US he pointed to the Ghost Ship fire in California which took the lives of 36 people whilst “code officials in that city looked away”. What appeared to be a run-of-the-mill abandoned warehouse on a crowded block turned out to be a structure that had been converted into a residence that had provided space for artists with makeshift interior walls, a staircase of wooden pallets, art work, antique furniture and other collectables which were amassed “like a hoarder that had lived in that unit for years”. He described how there were no sprinklers, there were no smoke alarms, there were no proper exits that were in place. “In nearly every way the Ghost Ship was primed for a disastrous fire. That’s exactly what happened on December 2, 2016.”

Mr Pauley then pointed to the Notre Dame fire of only a few weeks previous as well as the “catastrophic fires in malls, orphanages, schools, hospitals and virtually every type of building, from New York to China to Dubai to Peru to Russia, and every place in between. All these tragic incidents are telling, but so many more along with them outline exactly what’s on my mind and what our single biggest challenge is. Why can’t we seem to get the right elements of fire safety correct?”

“I’ve given a lot of thought to this. It’s one of the things that keeps me up at night. But I realised it’s because we’ve not found a holistic way to tell the fire safety story. We’ve forgotten that safety is a system. It’s not a singular action or a piece of equipment or an event. So the time has come to do something about the way we think. We have to understand that safety’s an ecosystem and we have to change the way we talk about it. So we developed this model at NFPA.”

Life Safety Ecosystem

The ecosystem consists of eight components that play a critical role in protecting people and property. “Time after time, if you look at any calamity, you’ll be able to trace the cause to a breakdown of one or more of the elements of this ecosystem.

“I implore you to take a look at this model. Not as a fire safety model itself but as a model about how you think about fire safety and how you organise the thoughts that you have.”

Government Responsibility

The first cog is around government responsibility. Elected officials have to create a regulatory environment where laws and policies are dictated by public safety needs and not by special interests, Mr Pauley explained. “It is a policy maker’s job and citizens expect them to do it and each of us in the ecosystem has a job of educating our policy makers. To help, we’ve launched the NFPA Fire and Life Safety Policy Institute.” The Institute studies a wide range of issues to provide guidance to policy makers. Mr Pauley said the work of the independent Institute has already shed some light on some serious issues such as the gap between public expectations of safety and the shortfalls that are going on in actual practice.


“Why can’t we seem to get the right elements of fire safety correct? We have to understand that safety’s an ecosystem and we have to change the way we talk about it”



Codes and Standards

The second cog pertains to the development and use of current codes. “One of the reasons that we have seen that NFPA Codes of Practice are popular around the globe is because they’re up to date,” he explained. “Our standards development system updates standards on a three-year cycle. This means we can take advantage of the latest learnings from research, technology advances, case studies, loss experiences and prudent best practices. We see many codes and standards in use around the world that are woefully out of date, some by ten, 20 or even more years.

“If we have NFPA standards that can be useful to here in the UK I encourage them to take a look to see how they could be adapted to suit your needs. We produce these for people to be able to use. What I don’t do is stand up here and say you should adopt NFPA standards. That’s not the solution. Your solution has got to be the one you need for your country. But if we have tools that can help you, I would encourage you to take advantage.”


Reference Standards

We tend not to think about what goes along with the standards part of the system, Mr Pauley stated. A reference standard is a forgotten, critical part of the ecosystem, he suggested. Standards are a system of standards, he explained. “A Building Code may tell you what type of material may be used on the exterior of a building, but it probably references another standard that the material has to be tested to. In this system, it is important that we are following all of those standards not just some of them. Following one part without looking at the other leads to a significant gap.”


Investment in Safety

The fourth part of the ecosystem covers prioritising investment in safety. Mr Pauley described this part of the ecosystem along two lines: research and prioritising decisions that need to be made. In terms of research he said that as new materials, new systems, new technology emerge, they must be used safely. He used an example in the US of energy storage systems. “A lot of work has been done in that area but nobody thought about our first responder community. So we did significant work to create a training programme for first responders to educate them on this new technology and what happens in a fire. It’s important that we continue to invest in research.”

The second part is investing in safety, prioritising decisions that need to be made. Mr Pauley pointed to the Notre Dame fire where, according to an architectural design magazine, fire protection systems were not installed in the attic because they deemed the oak framing too precious and sprinklers too risky to art work and relics. In Bangladesh the NFPA have worked collaboratively with local authorities and global clothing brands to effect change in fire safety following several large scale fires. “But the fire safety culture did not permeate to the rest of the areas of Bangladesh,” he explained. “Just six weeks ago a fire swept through an apartment building in Dacha claiming the lives of 70 people and injuring scores more.”


Skilled Workforce

Regardless of our role, we can all learn and improve our skills, Mr Pauley stated, appealing to elevate continual professional development. He pointed to another training programme following the introduction of electrical vehicles where again no-one was paying attention to first responders. “How do you shut off power? How do you extract somebody from that vehicle? So we developed another training programme to emergency responders and a quarter of a million emergency responders have taken that training so far.”


Code Compliance

Effective code enforcement is a critical part of the system and it does not begin and end with the construction phase, Mr Pauley stressed. “Code compliance is throughout the life cycle of a building. Every phase from planning and zoning through to ultimate demolition of the building. But sadly in the US and around the world, compliance is running the gamut. Code compliance needs to be well funded and needs to have an effective means to ensure the compliance is met.”


Preparedness and Emergency Response

This is not just about fire, Mr Pauley stated, which shows the versatility of the system. “Today we ask emergency responders to be prepared for and respond to, not only fires, but a myriad of emergencies.” One of the more recent developments has been around active shooter and hostile events, “so we needed a better way to help communities prepare, respond and recover from those events.” This led the association to create NFPA 3000, a Standard for Active Shooter Hostile Event. What is exceptional about this standard, Mr Pauley explained, is that it brought together fire, police, EMS and other safety focused practitioners to unite to create the holistic standard of how to respond to these events. “It’s a world’s first guidance around unified command for those events, a benchmark for planning, recovery, responding as well as civilian and responder safety considerations. But it’s also an example of how we need to be holistically looking at safety.”


Informed Public

Educating the public about the dangers posed by fire and other hazards is more important today than ever, Mr Pauley said. “We’re living in a time when a survey revealed that people believed they are more likely to win the lottery or be struck by lightning than suffer a fire. All of you know that thinking is completely wrong. We have to break through this messaging clutter. As we break through that messaging clutter it’s going to take unique ways that we can have communities, individuals and families to become their own heroes, to find ways that they can take action so that they can become safe. What is universal is the need to ensure we’re taking steps to keep the public informed.”

Mr Pauley concluded by challenging the audience to give some more thought to the ecosystem. “It’s a strategic way to approach what all of you want to do: keep people and property safe. For the NFPA, we’re here to help. We’ll continue to work on some of the tough questions. We’ll continue to help develop tools that will help advance safety. This ecosystem is our latest example so please use it. It’s a big world, let’s protect it together. It’s not a slogan, it’s really a call to action for all of us.”

Part two of our special report will focus on the practical implementation of changes to fire safety policy following the Grenfell Tower tragedy by Roy Wilsher, Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council.

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