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Marketing the fire problem

GUEST COLUMN, Mike Terwilliger, Truckee Fire Chief

I just finished reading an article about my business, the fire service, and had a chance to ponder people’s general knowledge of fire prevention, in light of recent tragedies.

Basically, there is nothing positive developing out of the recent fire disasters in Warwick, R.I. and Hartford, Conn. that could be considered useful other than reactive prevention programs. But, these tragedies reminded me of the reasons why the fire service was originated in the first place and the central reason we continue to exist. Incidentally, these were the nightclub disasters that for various reasons took the lives of more than 120.

As I thought about this I realized that I am amazed at the lack of knowledge and concern of generally intelligent people about the nature and scope of the fire problem that still exists in the United States, simply because it does not happen in front of their faces every day. I am amazed at the lack of willingness to do simple things to protect themselves from fire like install and maintain smoke detectors, creating and marking building exits, creating defensible space, and marking residential addressing to name a few. While we continue with the, “this will not happen here” syndrome, look at some questions I have for you below:



— How many structure fires occur each year in the USA?

— How many people are killed in fires annually, and how many are injured?




— How much property is destroyed annually by fire each year?

— What are the three major causes of fire in this country?

One would think it only natural that we in the fire service would know the answers to those questions. Not necessarily.

Simply because over the last two decades the mission of the fire service has changed to include more than 20 different services besides fire prevention, inspection and suppression. After 9-11 that list is once again getting larger. With all this knowledge we must grapple with, it is no small wonder that the firefighters of our country struggle with the questions I posed above, let alone the citizens.

So what is the point of all this? Well, with the most technologically advanced civilization on earth, we still experience more than 1 million fires annually in the United States.

Let’s take a minute and discuss this problem. Did you know that we have taken great strides to reduce fire loss but still have the reputation of having the worst record in the western world for destruction by fire? As a description of the fire problem today, in the year 2001, fire departments responded to 1,734,500 fires. Keep in mind there are 27,330 fire departments in the U.S. One could assume many fires are not reported, so the numbers are low.

There were 521,500 structures fires, with 396,500 residential fires. There were 6,196 deaths, of which 2,451 were civilians during 9-11, leaving 3,110 civilian fire deaths in homes. There were 21,110 injuries, of which 800 were from 9-11.

Nationwide there was a fire death every three hours, with an injury every 34 minutes. Every 18 seconds a fire department responds to a fire somewhere in the U.S. A fire occurs every 60 seconds in a structure and a residential fire occurs every 80 seconds. Fires occur in vehicles every 90 seconds.

In terms of deaths here is the picture: Imagine two fully loaded 747 jets colliding in mid-air with all souls aboard being lost, every month! Now that I have your attention you might ask how this relates to this community? Well, in addition to all the fires, departments respond to 12,331,000 medical aids, 985,000 hazardous materials calls, and 838,500 mutual aid calls. In all, fire departments responded to 20,965,000 incidents in 2001. Truckee Fire Protection District responds over 2,100 times each year to the same stuff.

Much of the fire services job is based on selling certain behavior changes to people, business owners and lawmakers so that our living environment can be safer before the fire department is called.

We are selling you something of great value: The right to live a safe existence in our communities without fear of loss from fire; the right for a group of people to go to a club to watch a band without fear of being burned alive, if not wedged in an exit they should not have taken.

It happens all over this nation and it can happen here.

So with all the information you have here, I once again ask you to look for yourself at your living environment. Are you safe? Are you prepared? Have you done the things you need to do to make your home and business safe from a fire starting?

Once you have done that, have you prepared for the fire that starts? Can you be guaranteed we can find you? Do you have smoke alarms? Is your business up to code or have you changed it back after we made our inspection? Do you welcome fire department and building department requirements, or complain? Can people get in and can people get out? Do your doors swing in or out? Are exits lighted and visible? Are you chaining doors to keep people from sneaking in?

The list is huge. I am trying to market this item of great value: Our right to live safely.

Call us and we can help, but do it now. Time may not on your side.

Mike Terwilliger is Fire Chief of the Truckee Fire Protection District.


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