Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on July 1, 2017.

Seconds Count

This year’s Fire Prevention Week theme illustrates why escape planning matters now more than ever

In June, NFPA announced that the theme for this year’s Fire Prevention Week (FPW), taking place October 8–14, would be “Every Second Counts—Plan 2 Ways Out.” The campaign will stress the importance of identifying two ways out of each room and reminds people that smoke alarms are an essential part of escape planning.

While coming up with a theme sounds simple, you’d be surprised how much goes into it each year. The work begins as soon as the current FPW concludes, when a team at NFPA meets to discuss topic candidates for the upcoming year. We look at current research studies, relevant data, and feedback from fire departments and other public safety educators who promote FPW. The challenge is to find a topic that will generate interest and also spur action in those who deliver the message and those we want to receive it.

The difficulty of the task is compounded by public complacency, which has grown in part because we have been doing this a very long time. The first National Fire Prevention Day proclamation was issued in 1920, making FPW the longest running public health and safety observance on record, according to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Our longevity is a strength, of course, but it also means that we need to remain diligent in engaging the public and staying relevant in the fight against today’s fires.

This year’s theme does just that.

Modern fires are vastly different than those we encountered when FPW began nearly a century ago. Remember visiting your grandparents when you were a child? Chances are their home and the furnishings inside were much different than what we see today. Homes in the past were small, had distinct rooms, lots of walls, and flat, low ceilings. Furniture was usually heavily upholstered, made with natural fibers and thick wooden legs. Rugs were wool; electronics were scarce.

Today’s homes, on the other hand, are bigger, have more open spaces, and often include atrium ceilings. They are constructed with lightweight wood and composite components. Modern furnishings are primarily made of synthetics, and homes are full of electronic devices. All of these conditions have led to residential fires that burn much hotter and faster than in the past. Unprotected lightweight construction, although less expensive and stronger than traditional construction, has been shown in studies to collapse quicker under fire conditions. Tests conducted at Underwriters Laboratories vividly depict the ramifications of fire in modern homes with modern furnishings—watch the videos at the Fire Sprinkler Initiative.

All of this means that there is much less time for a family to get out of their house if a fire begins. Decades ago, the common belief was that you would have up to 15 minutes to escape a burning residential fire. Today, that number can be as little as two to three minutes, underscoring the importance of developing and practicing a home escape plan. We know from a past NFPA survey that only about a third of American households have an escape plan that they practice. Most people surveyed estimated that they would have about six minutes to get out of their home. Fewer than 10 percent reported that upon hearing a smoke alarm their first thought would be to get out.

With less time to escape, people need to know exactly what to do when the alarm sounds. FPW campaign materials will include simple-to-use escape plan grids, tips on how to practice, and other materials that can be shared in communities across the country. It’s all online at the Fire Prevention Week website.

Now is a great opportunity to build on FPW’s history of putting fire safety front and center and focus on the challenges of today.

LORRAINE CARLI is vice president of Outreach and Advocacy for NFPA.