Record-Low Fire Deaths In Chicago in 2013, But There’s More To Be Done

At a recent Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications news conference, Chicago Fire Department officials cited Chicago’s record-low fire deaths in 2013. They noted that smoke detectors, fire sprinklers and other fire safety improvements, public education and advances in emergency medical service were key factors that minimized fire deaths.

The Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board (NIFSAB) recognizes Chicago Fire Department spokesperson Larry Langford for acknowledging fire sprinklers as one of the important tools that has helped reduce the number of fire deaths in Chicago to as little as 16 deaths. This is the first definitive statement by a Chicago official that points out the difference fire sprinklers are making in saving lives. Now, Chicago officials need to establish ONGOING promotion of residential fire sprinklers in their communications with the media and their public fire safety education efforts.

Unfortunately, too often Chicago fire officials report on fire tragedies and deaths, but not on the successes of fire sprinkler activations that have saved lives. In Chicago, the public does not typically hear the stories about fire sprinklers activating and preventing total-loss fires or stories of fire sprinklers helping residents escape a building while they control or extinguish a fire before fire crews arrive.

In fact, the Chicago fire and building department websites offer no information about fire sprinklers and their life- and property-saving benefits. Even the Chicago Fire Department’s Survive Alive House at the Fire Academy, which is located at the point of origin of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, contains no display or mention of fire sprinklers.

The same holds true for the City’s building department. The portions of its website that are meant to educate high-rise building occupants about complying with the City’s Life Safety Evaluation (LSE) do not explain fire sprinkler retrofit installations, which can reduce LSE compliance costs and save lives.

Since residential high-rise owners can pass Chicago’s LSE with measures other than installing quick-response residential fire sprinklers, the LSE system writes off the people in the space where the fire originates and only intends to prevent the spread of fire to other units in buildings. Fire sprinklers activate to stop flashover and contain or extinguish the fire in its place of origin.

Yet Chicago’s very own Tridata Study of the Chicago Fire Department from 1999, which is often quoted and rarely implemented, states in Recommendation #3.4 that “The Chicago Fire Department should help educate the public as to the availability and advantage of new residential sprinkler technology, especially for new residential properties.” The recommendation is one of the easiest and least costly recommendations to implement, however, it has largely been ignored.

The United States Fire Administration (USFA) even has vast amounts of “ready-to-use” public education materials to support its position that all Americans should be protected from death, injury and property loss resulting from fire in their residence, and that all homes should be equipped with both smoke alarms and residential fire sprinklers.

Chicago is heading in the right direction by promoting smoke alarms, other fire safety improvements and public education programs. However, fire officials need to further implement fire sprinkler requirements and education to continue decreasing fire deaths in the future. Fire sprinkler education resources that can be posted on websites and implemented in public education initiatives are readily available free of charge from organizations such as USFA/FEMA, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC). The USFA’s latest initiative, Fire is Everyone’s Fight, calls for the fire service and public to unite in a collaborative effort to reduce home fire injuries, deaths and property loss.

It is NIFSAB’s hope that Fire Commissioner Santiago and Mayor Emanuel look at the City of Chicago’s success of reducing the number of fire deaths and make a commitment to bring the number down to zero fire deaths in the future by starting fire sprinkler education programs now. It is never to late to educate and build on this most recent success.

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