Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on July 1, 2019.

New Day, Old Challenge

Seventy years ago, safety advocates worried that people didn't recognize the hazards posed by fire. The same concern exists today.

A couple of months ago, I spoke at the 17th annual Harry S. Truman Legacy Symposium, an educational conference that revisits topics championed by President Truman. The theme for this year’s event was Truman’s legacy on fire prevention, fire safety, and historic preservation, and centered on the final report from the 1947 President’s Conference on Fire Prevention.

As I read Truman’s address and documents from the proceedings, I was struck by how safety advocates 70 years ago were dealing with the same challenge we struggle with today. Namely, how to get people to recognize fire as a threat and take action for their own safety. “Thousands of lives are lost annually and tens of thousands of people are injured in the many less spectacular fires which occur hour after hour and day after day, throughout the year,” Truman said then, trying to steer the public’s attention to the true scope of the fire problem.

To take on the apathy of the time, public safety advocates at the conference came up with several approaches in their final report, which have had dramatic positive results. They expanded efforts to reach children and their teachers with safety messages through every level of the educational system. They improved public safety messaging, making it more visual and more entertaining, leading to the dawn of radio and film safety messaging. Attendees also called for better localized fire safety campaigns, resulting in more focus on the then relatively new NFPA Fire Prevention Week, now the longest running public health campaign in the country.

These approaches worked. Combined with advancements in public education, the use and enforcement of updated codes, and the widespread use of smoke alarms and other technologies, we are safer from fire on the whole than we were in 1947. But with this success, the issue of complacency has returned. As in 1947, people today generally do not view fire as a significant threat, and they don’t readily take actions to ensure their own safety.

Fire remains a huge issue. While we continue to see a downward trend in the number of fires occurring in the United States, the number of home fire fatalities actually increased by 10 percent in 2016. If you have a home fire today, you are more likely to die than you were in 1980, according to NFPA statistics. We have even seen a backslide on critical safety components such as jurisdictions not using current codes, and even restricting proven technologies like home fire sprinklers.

As these trends persist, we need to think about safety differently. NFPA has begun to talk about it as the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem, a framework for the various components necessary to keep people and property safe. This ecosystem can be the catalyst to help us take on today’s fire prevention challenges, just as President Truman’s conference and the resulting report ignited action more than 70 years ago.

Almost all of the fire and life safety incidents we see today are the result of gaps in one or more cogs in the ecosystem. We need to identify where these gaps are and work together to close them. So far, we are doing this by raising awareness about the ecosystem concept—including highlighting specific successes and failures—and by creating tools to help people better understand and share this framework with others. We are also challenging stakeholders to identify where they specifically fit into the ecosystem and how they can do more to impact loss. Through these and other efforts, we hope we can reframe safety and spark action. As President Truman and others emphasized in 1947, everyone is responsible for safety.

To learn more about the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem, visit

Lorraine Carli is vice president of Outreach and Advocacy for NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler