The Importance of Fire Prevention: Who Should be Held Responsible?
Written by Bob Turley
The deadliest fire in the Bronx in three decades took the lives of 17 people including 8 children in an apartment building on January 9, 2022. At FireWise, we’re asking ourselves, “Is it time to reflect on the importance of fire prevention and fire inspections? Should fire prevention and inspections be the sole responsibility of the fire department, or should the building owner share that responsibility? What can be done to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again?”
The National Building and Fire Codes of Canada, and many other jurisdictions, state that it is the building owners, or their agents, responsibility to comply with the codes.
Does that mean that every building must comply with the current code? Or should the building only be expected to conform to the code in effect at the time of construction? Although the recent Bronx fire is reported accidental in nature, being caused by a faulty electrical heater, we have often heard fire prevention professionals and building owners state that the ‘building only needs to meet the code of the day, but that is ridiculous if you think about it. When I worked for the Office of the Fire Commissioner, the office’s policy was that “Buildings need not meet the current code standard but they must provide an acceptable level of fire and life safety as determined by a competent fire official.”
Fire Safety Technologies Have Changed in the Last 80 Years
Our understanding of fires has progressed since the first National Building Code in 1941 and the first National Fire Code in 1963. Data shows that today’s fires spread faster and are more intense than those of 80 years ago. Does it make sense to expose residents to those higher risks with technologies we know are not up to the job? Of course not.
Even if the fire was accidental, was the building maintained to minimize the spread and speed of the fire? Could lives have been saved if the building had fire prevention measures in place?
One of the news articles I read about the fire said, “the door to the apartment and a door to a stairwell was left open, letting smoke quickly spread throughout the building.” The failure to close doors is a fire separation issue which, in my experience, is one of the most frequent causes of loss of life from fire. The simple installation of alarm-supervised hold-open devices on doors in public corridors and self-closing devices on apartment doors effectively manage these risks.
How do we change human behaviour? We need to look no further than the successful tobacco and seat belt programs as examples of where we have done this through education and enforcement. A combination of education programs, legal requirements, and penalties for non-compliance has reduced smoking and has seen a massive uptake in seatbelt use. Perhaps it is time to make fire safety education programs mandatory for building owners of multi-family residential and assembly buildings.
Who Should be Held Responsible?
Building owners have a responsibility to maintain an acceptable level of fire safety through the inspection, testing, and maintenance of fire safety systems. They need to understand what systems are provided in their facility and that ongoing maintenance is required. From time to time these critical systems will also require upgrading. Understanding and competence start with education.
At FireWise we believe that knowledge saves lives and to this end, have produced a course that provides building owners and their agents with the information they require to keep their facilities fire safe. The Building Safety Fire Prevention Training course is online and looks at the three most important aspects of fire safety: early detection, adequate exiting, and fire separations. The course also provides essential guidance on developing effective fire safety plans and understanding fire suppression systems.
Effective fire prevention is a team effort involving the building owner, fire department personnel, and occupants. FireWise can help you develop an innovative approach through education to improve the fire safety of the buildings in your community. For more information, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.