Funding for Fire Prevention Programs Before Congress

Author: Karl Houser, P.E., LEED AP

Vol. 119 | August 08, 2017

In recent comments before a congressional committee, Chief Butch Browning, NASFM President and Louisiana State Fire Marshal, emphasized the need for continued support at all levels – Federal, state, and local – for fire prevention activities.  These include, but are not limited to, public fire education, fire prevention advocacy, fire inspections, fire investigations, and addressing special hazards.

Since America Burning was first published by the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control in 1973, we have seen marked progress in reducing our fire losses here in the United States. Although down from 12,000 annual fatalities, we are still recorded almost 3,300 fire fatalities in 2015 (according to the National Fire Protection Association - NFPA). These fires were responsible for a staggering $14.3 billion dollars (est.) in property damage and untold amounts in medical bills, lost wages and production, and emotional and physical trauma.

However, we still have a significant fire problem worldwide. Besides a large and aged building stock, climatic changes and demographic changes in the urban-wildland interface present new fire protection and firefighting obstacles. New building materials are some of the best in materials science, but present challenges to fire safety and fire performance.

Fire safety begins at the earliest stage of building materialization with product development.  Manufacturers put their new (or not so new), innovative products and systems through the paces using standardized and R&D-type tests that hopefully reflect end-use conditions that are expected during the life of the product.  Fire performance is tested along with other attributes.

Many products undergo mandatory or voluntary independent factory inspection supplementing in-house inspections for quality assurance.  Passing relevant standards, products can be certified, listed, or labeled to demonstrate compliance. As products are brought to market and are ready for field use, manufacturers work with architects, engineers, designers, and specifiers, to help assure appropriate design, installation, and use.

Local code officials or “Authorities Having Jurisdiction” (AHJs) are informed and educated in several different fashions (including, but not limited to, formal education, certifications, seminars, webinars, product catalogs, and research reports describing code compliance) how a product or system is code compliant and how it should be installed and used.  They (or their designees like third-party or special inspectors) have a responsibility for field inspection and approvals to assure compliance with local codes. The process does not stop with the issuance of a Use & Occupancy Certificate. The building users and owners are responsible for the day-to-day operations and maintenance of that building for the remainder of its useful life.  Plant engineers, facility managers, their team members, and out-sourced specialty contractors are there to make sure all the parts still fit and still work. But unlike problems with heating and cooling systems or electrical systems, fire protection features are usually a lot subtler.

Although building owners have a responsibility, often it is fire inspectors and fire marshals (and personnel from your local fire station) who do the heavy lifting.  They typically try to inspect all commercial buildings on some schedule.  Too often, they are over-burdened with the number and complexity of regular fire inspections that they can efficiently perform and need more resources.

All told, government and other inspectors of all types are generally doing a decent job.  However, it takes funding to build a staff, and train and equip these dedicated men and women.  Permit fees don’t cover the costs and often go into the general fund.

Codes and standards are complicated and can be expensive to purchase.  The complete NFPA standard (NFPA 25) for the inspection, testing, and maintenance of just water-based fire protection system rolls in at around 120 pages.  Although sometimes gratis, professional seminars and conferences take personnel time and funds.  One needs more than a clipboard and a flashlight to do a comprehensive fire inspection today.  There are new (and purposeful) code provisions for the inspection of more and more fire protection systems and devices other than just portable fire extinguishers and door locks.  Fire inspections are becoming longer, more complex, and in some cases, more frequent. Like construction professionals, time and money are synonymous.

In light of the tragic fires which have recently occurred, resources allocated to fire prevention should be maintained or increased, as Chief Browning emphasized in his testimony, to protect not only citizens’ lives and property, but the lives of first responders as well.

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For more information about Chief Browning's testimony before Congress, visit: http://www.firemarshals.org/