Author(s): Don Bliss. Published on March 1, 2017.

The Safety Priority

How can we address the most pressing issues of international fire safety?

As you’re no doubt aware, 36 people died in Oakland in December when a fire broke out in a warehouse, known as the Ghost Ship, that was being used illegally as a residence and a performance space. While the incident demonstrates that the United States clearly hasn’t solved all of its domestic fire safety problems, loss of life on the scale of the Ghost Ship fire is fortunately rare in this country. But that is not the case in many countries around the world, and those tragedies are seldom covered in the American media.

Dozens of international incidents resulted in 10 or more deaths in 2016. In India, for example, a stockpile of fireworks ignited during a pyrotechnics display in a highly congested neighborhood, resulting in an explosion that killed 110 people and injured 350 others. In Bangladesh, which has experienced a number of devastating fires and other incidents in manufacturing facilities in recent years, a factory fire killed 39 workers who were trapped in the building following a suspected gas explosion in the boiler room. In Thailand, 18 young girls were killed in a two-story school dormitory fire; most were sleeping at the time of the fire, and one news story reported that some of the girls ignored calls to evacuate because they thought it was a prank.

In these incidents and in many others, lives would undoubtedly have been saved if even the most basic fire safety practices had been followed. However, particularly in the developing world, the reality is that many nations have not yet established a culture of safety that embraces up-to-date codes, effective enforcement, mitigation of community risk, modern building practices, or public awareness about fire safety. I’m deeply saddened by the expectation that thousands of innocent lives will continue to be lost until fire safety becomes a real priority for societies throughout the world.

NFPA closely monitors news reports on every fire and building collapse throughout the world that results in 10 or more fatalities, and we look for causes and patterns in those events. Across the board, almost all of these tragedies exhibit one or more common and preventable fire safety oversights, including lack of secondary exits; insufficient egress capacity; the presence of security bars on escape windows; highly combustible interior finishes; use and storage of hazardous materials in congested, highly populated residential areas; no smoke detection, fire alarms, or sprinkler systems; poorly installed and maintained electrical systems; inadequate water supplies for firefighting; delayed fire department notification and lengthy response times; no training of building occupants; and a lack of effective code-enforcement infrastructure.

NFPA continues to explore how we can share and apply our knowledge and information in lasting and effective ways in developing nations to address these issues. We have worked closely with the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety to assess fire safety conditions in garment factories and are now collaborating with the University of Maryland and the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology to support the establishment of fire protection engineering curricula. We are also participating in a World Bank initiative to mitigate the impact of fires and disasters in Ethiopia by strengthening that nation’s fire and building code enforcement capabilities.

In addition, NFPA continues to assist government agencies and national standards bodies with the adoption of NFPA codes and standards throughout the world. NFPA codes and standards have been adopted or are the “best practice” in more than 60 nations, and our codebooks and handbooks are printed in at least 15 languages.

It’s a start, but we have a lot more work to do to achieve NFPA’s global vision of “eliminating death, injury, property and economic loss due to fire, electrical and related hazards.”

DONALD P. BLISS is vice president of field operations for NFPA.