Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on January 2, 2018.

My Fire

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, it can be easy to think that fire can’t happen to you. And then it does.

For the past 12 years, I’ve worked at NFPA promoting fire safety through education and advocacy. Despite my knowledge on the subject, my experience had been secondhand—aside from a minor flare-up with my grill or setting off a smoke alarm while cooking, I’d never been personally affected by fire. Until I was.

A few months ago, my husband and I were out riding our bikes before work on a beautiful fall morning on Cape Cod when, almost simultaneously, our mobile phones alerted us to texts—one from a friend and another from my brother, the fire chief in my hometown. They were practically identical: “Is that your condo burning?” Both had seen a news report of a large condominium fire near Boston. Like many empty nesters, my husband and I had recently sold the home where we raised our kids and purchased a condo in a new development near NFPA headquarters. We were staying temporarily at our summer home on the Cape while waiting for the condominium building to be finished.

Later that morning, as I drove to my office, my husband called. He was watching a live newscast from the fire scene, and it looked a lot like our building. I pulled off the highway and went to see for myself. It was ours. The fire would ultimately destroy the building; 42 of the 50 units had been under agreement and scheduled to close within weeks.

We were lucky on many levels. We didn’t lose personal items, no one was hurt, and unlike so many others affected by fire, we had another place to live. But what if all that had been different? The experience forced me to regard fire from a new and different perspective. It made me appreciate even more the first responders who spent hours fighting the fire, and the investigators who spent days trying to figure out what happened.

No official cause has been determined, but the incident was one of a rash of fires in buildings under construction—around Boston and across the country—that NFPA has chronicled over the last year. The lightweight wood construction used in these buildings burns faster than traditional lumber, and is particularly vulnerable when it is not yet protected by sprinklers, fire alarms, and other protective elements. News stories reported that the fire had been burning for some time before the fire department was contacted. Another news article reported on a local official’s concern that the town did not require builders to implement pre-construction safety measures, despite codes that require such practices. This provided NFPA an opportunity to work with local officials to ensure they were aware of the applicable codes and offer assistance in understanding them.

While NFPA encourages the public and officials to be more proactive about fire prevention, the reality is that both have become more complacent as the number of fires has declined over the years. No one thinks it will happen to them or to their community. I have always promoted the fact that fires are still a threat, but now I can tell you from personal experience that fires can and do happen.

To keep communities safe, we need to continue to promote a full system of fire prevention, protection, and education. We need to remind the public of the role it plays in its own safety, and we need to work with policymakers to ensure complacency doesn’t put their communities at risk. While I wouldn’t wish firsthand experience with fire on anyone, it has given me a strong frame of reference to carry with me in my work, and it has renewed my drive to reduce loss.

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