● UNFINISHED BUSINESS
newly elected President Garfield was shot, the emergency medi-
cal protocol for treating a gunshot wound called for probing the
wound for the bullet using an unwashed finger and no anesthetic.
At the time, Dr. Joseph Lister was shunned by the United States
medical establishment for insisting on a more antiseptic approach
to President Garfield’s treatment. He was ridiculed because germs
were invisible and thought to be imaginary. Garfield died from the
ensuing infection caused by his doctor following protocols that
had not been scientifically tested.
FREQUENCY OF CODE INSPECTIONS: WHAT IS ENOUGH?
We don’t know how often to inspect properties of various types.
Except for the United States Navy’s Fire and Emergency Service,
in my experience it is rare to find a fire department inspecting
all structures as often as code requires. The Urban Institute did a
study in Fairfax County, Virginia, in the 1970s to look at the probability of having a fire vs. the time since last inspection, but the
data were too sparse to be definitive. A better study is needed not
only of the likelihood of fire but the survivability of the occupants
in inspected vs. uninspected occupancies. Anecdotes do not suffice.
COMPANY CODE INSPECTIONS
Are they good enough to be worth the effort? Sometimes just com-
ing around regularly for inspections may keep small businesses and
relatively benign properties on their safety toes, but it would be nice to
know if they really help in the large. (My guess is yes, they do.)
BARRIERS TO HOME FIRE SAFETY VISITS
A key part of current thinking on community risk reduction is
that home safety visits made by line firefighters to check on smoke
alarms can make a huge difference in fire death rates— 50 to 60
percent reductions—if most homes in the community are visited
over five years. So why are they not more widely used? Home safety
visits also are a boon to public relations for the fire service. Most
firefighters who do them love the feedback they receive from the
citizens. In a survey conducted by Vision 20/20, the majority of
firefighter respondents said they were willing to participate in home
visits. So why are we not doing them on a much larger scale in the
United States, similar to the scale in some provinces in Canada and
fire brigades in the United Kingdom? What barriers are stopping us
from obtaining the likely huge reduction in fire deaths?
APPLIED ROBOTICS FOR THE FIRE SERVICE
We are not talking about R2-D2-type robots joining the International Association of Fire Fighters; we are talking of adaption of
military robotics to civilian firefighting, under control of humans.
For example, there are rodent-size robotic scouts that could be
sent into a building by the first-arriving firefighters when there is
a lot of smoke to find the fire and look for victims. Also feasible
is automated extraction of victims from hazardous environments
(like an unconscious person near a toxic spill) or a robotic “mule”
to carry hundreds of pounds of hoselines and nozzles up five floors
of a tenement. In May 2011, Fire Engineering ran an article on the
potential, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency repeatedly turned down grant requests to pursue this topic, in part for
the unwarranted political fear of losing firefighter jobs to robots,
which is not going to happen.
LOCATING MISSING OR DISORIENTED
FIREFIGHTERS IN A STRUCTURE
Academic labs (e.g., Worcester Polytechnic Institute) and
commercial companies (e.g., Motorola, Harris, Grumman) have
worked intensely on technology to track firefighters inside a building with little success. Research was stimulated by the loss of six
firefighters in a Worcester, Massachusetts, fire in a vacant building,
because the first pair did not know where they were in the building, and teams sent to find them got lost themselves.
The location problem is much more difficult in a structure than
outside; global positioning systems do not work accurately inside
structures, and a radio beam sent from a device on a firefighter
would have multiple wave paths bouncing around in the structure.
The problem can be solved by brute force, with the path of firefighters marked by “electronic breadcrumbs,” like in Hansel and Gretel,
but a more practical approach is needed. Every fire department in
the nation would purchase a reasonably priced system that could be
attached to breathing apparatus for the safety of its firefighters, but
no one has solved the problem, at least not at a reasonable cost. This
research area needs more funding. It will help track firefighters and
save their lives. The data on firefighter locations during an incident
will be of interest for accurate after action reports.
USE OF BEST IDEAS INTERNATIONALLY
The American fire service tends to be very provincial. Even if a
new idea is proven successful abroad, there is great resistance to try
it here, and it is often dubbed silly or dangerous. For example, some
Scandinavian engines carry a quickly inflatable bag to save people
jumping out of low-story windows before ladders can be raised. (It
is good up to four stories.) Another Scandinavian idea is to plug
electric stoves into timers so the stove shuts off after a set amount
of time, say 10 minutes, if you forget about your cooking. A new
standard for stovetops is going to solve this problem in the future,
but millions of stovetops exist that can be made safer by simply plugging the power cord into a timer. We should monitor best practices
everywhere and consider how they can be adapted here.
MORE COLLABORATION ACROSS SAFETY AGENCIES
Law enforcement, fire, health, home nursing, building safety,
emergency management, Meals on Wheels, and other services
enter many homes and businesses for a variety of reasons. To get
more outreach and bang for the buck, these services can coordinate
inspections and other activities and can cross-train employees to
look for major dangers. The fire service in Strathclyde, Scotland,
is required by law to meet with its sister agencies at least quarterly
for this purpose. Nurses in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, worked with
the Cleveland Fire Department to coordinate what to look for on
home visits to new mothers.
Besides the everyday risk reduction that can be achieved, better
coordination across agencies is also critical for dealing with terrorism. The Arlington County (VA) Fire Department did a fantastic
incident command job on 9/11, in part because its leadership was on
a first-name basis with the FBI and other agencies involved. Likewise,
the Boston police, EMS, transportation, FBI, National Guard, and
20 other agencies coordinated extraordinarily well at the Boston
Marathon bombing. On the other hand, poor coordination between
police and fire at the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater mass shooting