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Grenfell Towers Tragedy

Posted By Joanne Genadio, Monday, June 19, 2017

When is Enough Enough?


“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” - Sir Winston Churchill



It is with sad irony that this now-famous quote by Winston Churchill, arguably the most famous British Prime Minister, took on special meaning on June 14th. The death toll continues to rise as the result of the now-infamous Grenfell Towers fire in London, and reverberations can be heard around the world. The high-rise was not equipped with fire sprinklers, which would have mitigated the fire and allowed residents time to escape.


In March of 2015, NFSA President Shane Ray wrote an article for Firehouse Magazine entitled “The Fire”: Let’s Learn from What They Teach Us, where he asks the question, “Why do we continue to wait for a tragedy to take action?” The London tragedy is proof that we still have not answered this question.


In perhaps the most telling paragraph of his article, Ray goes on to say, “There have been a lot of recent tragedies where communities, people and fire departments are referring to “The Fire.” Whether it’s a large property loss fire where no one died, but 400 people are out of their homes, a high-rise fire with one death or six deaths, a mansion fire with three generations lost or a dozen fatalities a day in single-family dwellings, we have a duty to act against “The Fire.” Maybe we will get someone to put all “The Fire” stories together and reenergize us all to take action. With our aging population and the fact that the Millennials are more in numbers than the Baby Boomers, will we understand our duty? We should try to make sure “The Fire” is only in history.” Unfortunately, two years after this article was published, “The Fire,” as of this writing, occurred only six days ago.


On May 15, 2017 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was the site of another fatal high-rise fire, when a seven-alarm blaze began on the sixth floor of an unsprinklered 18-story apartment building. A 75-year old woman lost her life, 3 firefighters and several residents were injured. Fire officials had called for sprinklers to be installed in the building nearly two decades ago, in 1999, after a fire on the 13th floor. At that time, acting fire chief Peter Micheli called it a “classic example” of why sprinklers are needed in high rises.


Sprinklers have been around for about 100 years now — a little more. And in that 100-year time, there has never been a fatality as a result of fire in a building with a working sprinkler system,” current Pittsburgh fire Chief Darryl E. Jones said. He advocated tougher sprinkler requirements but, unfortunately, he stated that he doesn’t “have any control over that.”


Like many places across the U.S., Pittsburgh is an old city. The high rise that caught fire was over 100 years old. The code requirement for sprinklers in high-rise structures did not become universal in the United States until the 1990s. It is imperative that states adopt code changes that would call for retrofitting of all high-rises built without fire sprinklers, especially those people live in.


Pushback to requiring retrofit is rampant from some housing associations across the country, all the more reason to educate and involve all stakeholders of the life- and property-saving benefits of fire sprinkler systems. In the wake of the Pittsburgh fire, Jim Eichenlaub, executive director of the Builders Association and Apartment Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh, is quoted as saying, “There are a lot of other public policy and issues that need to be considered before moving forward with that type of action.” Immediately after the fire there were indications from opponents that they would be willing to entertain the idea.


The National Fire Sprinkler Association is in full support of working with all stakeholders in improving fire and life safety especially in high-rise buildings. The Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act (H.R. 1481) as introduced in Congress would give incentives for owners to retrofit older buildings by allowing increased depreciation on their taxes. As the 115th Congress takes up this issue, with tax reform on the table as well, there will be several excuses removed as to why we don’t protect residents from fires in this modern time.


Let’s all work together to support fire professionals. As we all know, there is no price that can be placed on a life or the trauma of the experience of this type of event! We are secure in the knowledge that the families and friends of the victims and survivors of high-rise fires would agree.


May the headlines from the aftermath of the Grenfell Towers fire sear into the brains of all those who doubt or oppose the retrofitting of fire sprinklers into high rises:


     • Terrified children scrawled 'help' on ash stained windows, eyewitness reveals 

     • 'I LOVE YOU MUM' Grenfell Tower fire – Italian couple’s heartbreaking final phone call as fire crept into their home on 23rd floor – as official death toll rises to 30

     • 'Frantically banging and screaming': Witnesses say children dropped from high rise in London fire


We should never see headlines such as those from the aftermath of the Grenfell Towers fire, or opposition to the retrofitting of fire sprinklers into high-rises in 2017 or beyond.


Will this tragedy be the one to open the minds of the resistance? We leave off with this telling paragraph from Ray’s article.


“Make sure your community has adopted or is on the path to adopting the latest codes and standards. Make sure you are inspecting all occupancies you possibly can and make sure the testing, maintenance and inspections on existing facilities are conducted. Public information officers can work with public educators to get the education messages out to target audiences. There is plenty for us all to do, so let’s be ready for “The Fire” and let’s make it history. As the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) shares, “Fire Is Everyone’s Fight,” and we should make it real in that sense. Let’s get involved and change the headline.”


Joanne Genadio
NFSM Editor

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