Author(s): Don Bliss. Published on March 1, 2019.

Global Ecosystem

How NFPA is boosting its efforts to address fire and life safety threats in developing countries

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A major challenge for NFPA as we focus on our global mission is finding effective ways to strengthen the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem in developing nations. Fire statistics gathered by NFPA and others clearly show that people living in these countries are far more likely to die in fires than people who live in developed nations. According to the World Health Organization, more than 95 percent of the world’s fire-related deaths and injuries occur in developing countries, where death rates are nearly six times greater than in high-income countries. These are horrifying numbers.

Headlines about catastrophic fires in developing countries are common. Hundreds of impoverished people die each year in fires while trying to hoard leaking fuel from tankers or pipelines, such as the gasoline pipeline explosion in January that killed scores of people in Mexico. Deadly fireworks explosions in India during holiday celebrations have become increasingly common. Unregulated informal settlements, such as the favelas of Brazil, are prone to conflagrations that destroy hundreds of homes. Fatal fires are all too frequent in nightclubs, restaurants, high-rises, and shopping centers, to say nothing of home fires caused by candles, dangerous cooking methods, faulty electrical systems and appliances, smoking materials, and arson.

As I travel the world on behalf of NFPA, I am able to see firsthand many of the barriers that prevent the establishment of an effective fire and life safety ecosystem. Government corruption or incompetence, particularly at the local level, disrupts the application and enforcement of fire and building codes. If national leaders are focused on other priorities, it is unlikely they will care about developing policies supporting fire safety.

Additionally, there is often a huge shortage of skilled workers knowledgeable about fire and life safety. Even where the need for skilled workers is recognized, the availability of academic or vocational training programs may be limited or nonexistent. Fire departments are often understaffed, poorly equipped, and lack up-to-date training, while community infrastructure does not support an effective water supply system or fire department access to congested areas. Lastly, it is extremely difficult to educate citizens about fire safety when it is a daily struggle for them just to find work, food, safe drinking water, or even shelter.

Though all of these issues are extremely challenging, NFPA has created resources for use in the developing world. In addition to the codes and standards adopted or in use in over 60 countries, NFPA offers free, downloadable, easy-to-read fire safety tip sheets in multiple languages to supplement local public education programs. Wildfire mitigation programs based on NFPA’s Firewise USA® have been implemented in at least six countries, with more on the way. We have partnered with universities around the world to establish fire protection education and training programs. NFPA’s Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute is developing an assessment tool to help jurisdictions find gaps in their safety ecosystems. NFPA’s training and certification programs are being taught throughout the world, with many available online.

Much needs to be done to fulfill NFPA’s vision of eliminating deaths, injury, property, and economic loss due to fire, electrical, and related hazards around the world. We are working hard to understand the cultural, economic, technological, and political barriers that make it difficult to establish robust safety ecosystems in developing countries. In the coming months and years, we will be launching even more initiatives in support of local efforts to save lives and protect property. As Jim Pauley, NFPA’s president, has often said, “It’s a big world, let’s protect it together.” That’s not just a tag line—it’s a call to action.

DONALD BLISS is vice president of Field Operations for NFPA. Top Illustration: Michael Hoeweler