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Association of Fire Chiefs

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Codes Matter

In the wake of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, the fire service must redouble efforts in fire prevention, public education, and code enforcement.

By NYSAFC Executive Director Jerry DeLuca

The dates of many well-known incidents resonate in the minds of members of the fire service. On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City killed 145 garment workers. On November 28, 1942, 492 revelers died in Boston's Cocoanut Grove nightclub. On the night of April 23, 1940, 209 people died in the Rhythm Club fire in Natchez, MS. In the early morning of June 30, 1974, the Gulliver's nightclub fire occurred on the border of Port Chester, NY and Greenwich, CT, killing 24 patrons. On the night of May 28, 1977, 165 people perished in the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Southgate, KY. On March 25, 1990, the Happy Land fire claimed the lives of 87 people who were trapped in an unlicensed New York City social club. On February 20, 2003, 100 concertgoers were killed in The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, RI.

And now, we will remember December 2, 2016, as the date of the Oakland “Ghost Ship” warehouse fire, which has claimed at least 36 lives.

In addition to the large number of fatalities, what these incidents have in common is that many of the fatalities were preventable. While the fires themselves may started in various ways and may or may not have been preventable, the large loss of life was. These fires have led to major changes in the way we view fire safety and the fire code. Significant improvements were made to fire codes and fire safety because of these fires. Why is it that we only focus on fire safety and codes after a tragedy occurs resulting in large numbers of fatalities?

The public and the media do not pay attention to or concern themselves with fire codes until a tragedy occurs. For many, they view codes as a restriction on their right to do what they want with their buildings and property. They do not see codes as a safety measure meant to prevent death and injury until somebody dies, or as in these horrific incidents, many people die. Then they ask, “Why didn't somebody do something to prevent this tragedy?” Even for many firefighters and fire department leaders, codes and code enforcement is a misunderstood and forgotten part of the fire service.  We focus on fighting fires, on vehicle extrication, and on responding to a wide range of incidents. But do we spend enough time dealing with code enforcement, public education, and fire prevention?

Until the investigation is complete, we will not know what caused the fire that claimed so many lives at the “Ghost Ship.”  From the many media reports and press briefings, this fire occurred in a building that was being used and occupied in a way that it was not designed or permitted for.  While many will look to the city for answers as to why this was allowed, in many instances municipalities are unaware of a particular building's use, or cannot violate the constitutional rights of people and are unable to access the interior of a building to check on its occupancy. While the need to fully enforce fire safety and building codes is evident, the need to educate and inform the public so that they also act in a safe manner and do not place themselves in an unsafe situation is also imperative. We will never stop all people from acting unsafely, but we, the fire service, must make every effort to inform the public of how to be fire safe. In every fire department, fire prevention, public education, and code enforcement must have the same priority as firefighting. All of these together will reduce the number of civilian deaths and ensure that we all go home.

This fire is one more example of why NYSAFC actively pursues the adoption of the most up-to-date codes and is a chief proponent of home fire sprinklers. Codes and sprinklers save lives.

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