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

Trust Trap

People depend on their governments to support fire and electrical safety. The reality is often very different.

A fascinating survey conducted this summer for NFPA found that more than 70 percent of consumers trust that their local, state, and federal governments will update to the latest fire and electrical safety codes for commercial buildings and homes. In addition, 65 percent of consumers polled say they trust governments not to weaken fire and electrical safety codes by amending language or flat out removing requirements that reflect the latest knowledge and safety advancements. Despite these beliefs, the reality is quite different. Too often, state and local governments delay adoption of the most recent version of codes and standards, and when they do, key provisions are often amended out—sometimes with tragic results.

The most recent example of this is the fire at the Marco Polo high-rise tower in Honolulu, Hawaii, which killed three people in July. The building did not have fire sprinklers, largely because the state council in Hawaii had amended out the provision in NFPA 1, Fire Code, that requires existing high-rise buildings to be retrofitted with sprinklers. Many residents said they were unaware the building did not have sprinklers, and some thought it did, according to news accounts.

Sadly, this terrible incident is not an outlier. There are numerous examples, beyond those that have captured media attention, of policymakers weakening model codes and allowing substandard practices in their communities. This includes the numerous states that have repeatedly taken out the language mandating that all new one- and two-family homes have fire sprinklers—despite the inclusion of a sprinkler requirement in every model code since 2009. As in Hawaii, we are seeing the effects of these dangerous practices play out in the real world, including a string of recent deadly fires across the globe, from wildfires to industrial settings to residences.

Shortly after the Grenfell Tower fire in London—another high-rise without sprinklers—where at least 80 people died in June, NFPA President Jim Pauley wrote in a public statement that we are experiencing “a breakdown in the fire and life safety system” worldwide. In Grenfell and the other deadly fires, similar factors—including outdated codes, lax enforcement, failure to use referenced codes, and diminished public education and awareness—were at least in part to blame, Pauley wrote. This fact is why we cannot allow the public to continue to harbor misguided perceptions about what their policymakers are doing or not doing. Instead, we must inspire them to demand better.

But how do we fix the disconnect between what the public expects and what is happening in government when it comes to building, fire, and life safety? What is the public’s role in mending the broken system that Pauley wrote about?

At NFPA, we need to continue to work on addressing public complacency. The numbers of fires, fire losses, and fire deaths have declined significantly in the last few decades, and people are much less likely to know someone who died or suffered a loss from fire than people in times past. This has bred an “it can’t happen to me” attitude toward fire. That must change. Secondly, I believe we need to add campaigns and messages about the importance of up-to-date codes and standards to our public education and advocacy efforts. We need to encourage members of the public to be more responsible for their own safety, to take a close look around their homes and other places they frequent and to ask about fire protection systems.

In short, the public should take on a greater role in ensuring that governments are committed to safer buildings through up-to-date codes. Only then will the reality more closely match the perception.

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