Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on November 1, 2018.

Essential Voices

A meeting of burn survivors underscores the power of personal stories to support fire safety advocacy

In my role as vice president of Outreach and Advocacy for the National Fire Protection Association, I wear a number of hats that are integral to furthering the mission of NFPA. One of those hats is as board president for the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors.

I have been associated with the Phoenix Society since I came to NFPA about 12 years ago. My experience with burn survivors before then had been limited—but then I met Amy Acton, executive director of the Phoenix Society. I was inspired by her story of being electrocuted in a boat accident as a teenager, her long recovery, her decision to become a burn nurse and, ultimately, her career at the Phoenix Society. As the head of that organization, she has worked to unite the voice of the burn community for greater good.

I recently attended the 30th Phoenix World Burn Congress, held in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The event was an incredible gathering of nearly 1,000 members of the burn survivor community—everyone from survivors and caretakers to health care providers and first responders. Attending World Burn, as it’s called, is an important way to see why we need to remain vigilant in our work to prevent fires and burns. This year I did something different—I participated as a coach in a workshop for burn survivors who want to become advocates. About 40 people broke into small groups and practiced telling their stories. They were directed to tell what happened, how it impacted them, what they learned, and what others could learn to further the cause of safety. They received feedback from each other as well as the coaches. My group included a woman who was in a home fire at a friend’s house where two children died. With great anguish, she described how fast the fire moved and how not everyone could get out despite hearing the smoke alarms.

Her story personifies why NFPA focuses so much education and advocacy on home fires. It is clear there is a knowledge gap around how quickly home fires spread today; you can have as little as two minutes to get out, and while smoke alarms are key, home fire sprinklers are essential.

Hers was one story, but there are many more, and each is compelling in its own way. The stories are very personal and very powerful, laced with passion and a resilient spirit. When each individual tells their story, it becomes part of a much bigger story that helps them heal, can help others heal, and effects change to prevent fires and burns on a larger scale.

We need those stories. Each year, roughly 3,000 people die from fires in the U.S. alone—nine lives lost every day. The World Health Organization estimates 265,000 people annually die in fires around the world, and that many more burn deaths occur as a result of scalds, electrical burns, and other forms of burns. Millions more are injured severely enough to require medical treatment.

Those are some big numbers that need changing—the statistics are important, but they take on a new kind of immediacy and urgency when they’re connected to the very real, very personal stories behind them, especially when those stories are told through the voices of survivors themselves. These survivors are lending their voices and stories to an array of important efforts, including NFPA’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative, which is working to increase the number of jurisdictions requiring sprinklers, defeat attempts to roll back electrical requirements, and promote the use of working smoke alarms.

Through this larger story we are making our world safer and more caring.

LORRAINE CARLI is vice president of Outreach and Advocacy for NFPA. Top Illustration: Michael Hoeweler