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When Opportunity Knocks

A Special Post by Deputy Chief Lawrence A. Rude, EFO

Each and every one of us in the fire service has the opportunity to make a difference in a very special way. On September 21st, 2008, Code Officials from the Fire and Building Services came together in Minneapolis, Minnesota to make history. Almost 2,200 gathered in the Minneapolis Convention Center in downtown Minneapolis to vote on a series of building and fire codes requiring sprinklers in newly constructed one and two family homes. (ICC Final Action Code Hearings (http://www.iccsafe.org/))

As a Fire Chief Officer, I have been beating my drum across the country for years, explaining to people how fire sprinklers save lives. These words have been met with mixed response. Some say, “Show me the proof”. Others say, “It is too darned expensive to put fire sprinklers in a home. Builders can’t afford it and the customer will never pay the price”. I even hear, “What about the water damage? My insurance company will never pay to replace everything lost by water damage”.

Hollywood has done more to suppress the existence of home sprinkler systems then any one single industry. I sat in my living room last week and watched one of those action-packed movies. The hero, while trying to get away from his captors, and, saving the heroin, inadvertently set off every sprinkler in the entire building. I am sure you have seen this movie and shook your head as I did. The funny part was that my neighbor and his wife were sitting watching with me. All at once he jumped up and said, “holy %#@! Is that going to happen to my house when the sprinklers go off? “

Thanks a lot, John McLain!
(Die Hard)

After three more cocktails and about an hour of explanations on fire suppression systems, my neighbor went home happy, with a sense of safety.
We, as Fire Chiefs, are also code officials. Fifty states across the county have adopted the International Family of Codes (ICC). This organization produces 15 codes designed to provide safety in our built environment. Most of you are familiar with the International Building and Fire Code, but you may not know about the International Residential Code, the International Plumbing Code, the International Mechanical Code, and many others.

Fire Chiefs, Inspectors, and Firefighters have an opportunity that many never experience, nor even understand – and that is the ability to change or even modify existing codes, as well as add new codes to these documents. It is a shame we in the fire service are not taking more advantage of this tremendous democratic process. This process is making a difference by improving safety for everyone, including firefighters.

Many years ago as a young firefighter, I didn’t truly understand the reasoning behind company level fire inspection. All I knew was that it allowed us into the building to get a lay of the land. Fortunately I didn’t just follow directions without understanding, but asked questions.  My Chief, who was very involved and instrumental in the code process, took me under his wing. Now, many years later, I am testifying before industry, members of congress and code officials from every corner of the US, maintaining safety in our built environment. I find myself sharing the same views given to me with young Officers and Firefighters as they ask the same question, “why?”
All fire service members, including Chief Officers, must take a look at these opportunities and get involved with the International Code Council. We must be involved if we want our voices heard. Building Officials and Industry have been doing this for years. As a Chief, I speak about succession planning and what will happen when we old dogs leave the fire service. Well my friends, it is happening today faster than you may realize. I know of a number of Fire Departments that are doing away with their company level inspections. Some have cut out fire prevention activities and turned the fire code enforcement over to someone else. How do we in the fire service educate our people to take our place if we do not give them the tools and opportunities? There is no better place to develop leadership skills and prepare for executive positions than in the code development process.

Are you a Fire Chief that feels fire prevention is at the bottom of your budget line item account, and the first program that will be cut when money gets tight? Unfortunately, most of us do not keep statistics that show how many fires, deaths or injuries we have prevented just by adopting codes and standards.

Thirty years ago, I heard firefighters say, “I did not take this job to be an EMT”. Man, did that attitude go away. Fire Prevention and Code enforcement is just another leadership path we, as Fire Chiefs, can share with our upcoming leaders. It is all about choices for the future.  If you do not make the choice, other code officials will make it for you. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough – the Building and Fire codes protect our members and we must stay active and participate in the code development process, and not just on single issues.

We would not ask our dentist to tune up our car or our doctor to design our fire station. So why would we let industry develop our fire codes?  What legacies will you leaving behind? You have the ability to make a difference, when opportunity knocks you either listen or let it pass by. Don’t let this opportunity pass you by.

Deputy Chief Lawrence A. Rude works for Maple Valley Fire And Life Safety which is located in South East King County, Washington covering 55 square miles

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Kenneth Cook December 30, 2008, 10:34 am

    Never thought about from that point of veiw Thanks you changed my mind!

  • Tim Rogers December 30, 2008, 10:35 am

    Chief Rude, you hit it square on the head! Every one of us is affected by the codes and how we present them to the public. Everyone from the rookie out of fire school to the chief of the department should be telling the public the advantages of sprinklers, code compliance and safe practices. Of course, we still are unable to quantify what good we are doing, except when the run stats go down, which makes it a way less interesting topic of study. As a group we need to be showing the public that code compliance is an advantage to everyone. That means everyone must have some idea of what the codes are and ask questions of those of us who have been doing it longer. Keep teaching the “younger” firefighter how it works. Firefighting is as much a craft and skill as it is a knowledge base. We learn by watching others do it right and repeating what we have seen.

  • Mark Thompson December 31, 2008, 12:35 pm

    Yee haw, great message.

    There is another action that needs to occur in the fire service and it too starts at the top of each fire service organziation to make sure the public is informed about residential fire sprinklers when the public is the most alert and aware, AFTER the Fire IS OUT! or in some cases while the fire is still burning, during news coverage.

    The PIO, Battalion Chief or Incident Commander or Fire Chief at structure fires in residential occupancies, when doing their press releases or Media interviews, should be emphasizing at the beginning of their interview that IF this bldg was equipped with Residential Fire sprinklers all of this devastation and emotional strees would not have occured, all of these fine citizens and family members would not have been displaced . Fire Sprinklers work!

    Citizens watching the news are mesmerized by fire footage, and listen, but we always miss the mark and do not emphasize the good work that fire sprinklers do. By educating citizens when they are most attentative and do self-reflection during and after news clips, we can be even more succesful in making an impact that will support installation of residential fire sprinklers.

    Many people hang on the words of their community Hero’s, our fire fighters, so we need capitalize on the opportunity during press releases and media interview opportunities to inform our viewing public of the benefit of Residential Fire Sprinklers.

    This is free and the best advertisement for Residential Fire Sprinklers there is, make it your department mission in media releases to emphasize Residential fire sprinklers and also celebrate the fire saves in bldgs due to fire sprinklers in residential occupancies and single family residences.

    Pretty soon every one will be talking fire sprinklers and they will be included in all new residential occupancies, just like granite counter tops or stainless steel appliances, have become the norm!!

  • Arsnman4 January 1, 2009, 10:27 am

    I’m glad to see that Chiefs can finally understand the importance of having knowledgeable personnel be active in code development because far too often nationally, this is not the case with the EFO’s just like you mention when it comes to cuts and impressions.

    How about this for thought, the reason those of us who are successful making the transition from the floor to the office and with education to our customers to gain compliance, possibly follow these principles for successful at what we do.

    My philosophy is simple. We do our mission solely based off of three principles. The first, make sure the public can escape their Home, a Restaurant, Store, Hotel, Industry or Concert venue if a fire or explosion breaks out. The second, that we the fire service, can manage a fire in any structure with the resources we have available. And lastly, that we all go home at 0730 the next day. Everything I do in this business from investigations, plan review, inspecting, code development and public education and training stems from these three principles. Once people understand the relationship between enforcement or regulation and these principles it’s easier for them to understand the why.

    Use these principles and many of the issues with suppression and prevention personnel are taken care of, the public understands why they are regulated, the media gets it right and we all win and stay out of court. Create your partnerships and check the egos.

    We also need to be careful because we are going to need to re-establish and mend those working relationships with our partners in the building side (since they control in the “family of codes”) and many are upset at how the sprinkler mandate came about despite and in addition to how the other special interest did it historically. They may not be against sprinklers but the political means in which it entered the last code body to include it.

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