Published on November 1, 2019.

Brazil Burning

Experts say a hospital fire and other blazes in Rio de Janeiro serve as prime examples of breakdowns in the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem


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On September 12, 11 people, many of them elderly patients, died in a fire that tore through Badim Hospital in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Investigators said the blaze was likely sparked by an electrical short-circuit in one of the facility’s emergency power generators.

In the wake of the fire, Rio’s mayor, Marcelo Crivella, told reporters that the hospital had been in compliance with local codes and standards, suggesting that the incident was more of a freak accident than a tragedy that could have been prevented. “Unfortunately, accidents happen anywhere,” he said.

But in a conversation with NFPA Journal, Anderson Queiroz, NFPA’s representative to Brazil, expressed doubts over whether the hospital was truly in compliance with local codes—despite what government records show. Furthermore, Queiroz said, there appeared to be a lack of training among hospital staff on how to react to an emergency.

“The hospital did have an approval certificate issued by the fire department,” Queiroz said. “But the department doesn’t make regular inspections to check whether already-approved facilities continue to comply with the code. We can also see from videos that surfaced of the fire that there seemed to be no clear procedure for how to evacuate the building in a fast and safe manner.”

In other words, the deadly hospital fire in Rio was, like most large-loss blazes experienced around the world, entirely preventable, and safety experts at NFPA say it serves as a prime example of how the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem can work.

Strong codes, weak compliance and education

Brazil has experienced other recent serious fires, including a blaze in October at a popular Rio bar that killed three firefighters and injured three others. The worst incident in recent memory happened in 2013, when a massive blaze tore through the Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria, a city of about 280,000, killing over 240 people and injuring more than 600 others. It was the third-deadliest recorded nightclub fire in history. Following the fire, there was a push throughout Brazil to strengthen codes and standards, according to Olga Caledonia, director of International Development at NFPA.

In 2013, a fire at Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria, Brazil, killed over 240 people. Getty Images. 

Those efforts apparently continue to this day. In August, about two weeks before the deadly hospital blaze, the fire code in Rio de Janeiro was updated and now includes more NFPA codes and standards than ever before, according to Queiroz. The Rio fire code now references over 20 NFPA documents. “It’s an important step to improving safety requirements not only for hospitals, but for all types of facilities,” Queiroz said.

But as the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem shows, having robust codes and standards in place is only part of what’s needed to ensure fire and life safety.

Introduced by NFPA at its annual Conference & Expo in 2018, the Ecosystem provides a comprehensive framework that identifies the components that must work together to help prevent loss, injury, and death from fire, electrical, and other hazards. Development and use of current codes is just one of those components; others include government responsibility, referenced standards, investment in safety, a skilled workforce, code compliance, preparedness and emergency response, and an informed public.

“Codes and regulations weren’t the problem” in the Badim Hospital fire, Caledonia said. Nor were they the problem in other recent high-profile blazes that have occurred in Rio, including a fire that consumed the dormitory of a soccer camp in January, killing 10 teenagers, and the September 2018 conflagration that razed Brazil’s historic National Museum, destroying some of the world’s most prized historic artifacts.

Instead, Caledonia and Queiroz said, it’s mainly the breakdowns in the other components of the Ecosystem that perpetuated the damage inflicted by incidents like these.

Government records show Badim Hospital had a certificate of approval issued by the local fire department signifying it was in compliance with local codes and standards. But Queiroz said that only means the facility was compliant at the single point in time. Regularly in Brazil, he said, the continued inspection of properties and enforcement of codes is overlooked.

“It’s not uncommon for there to be a lack of maintenance of certain fire protection systems, or a change of the facility’s layout without the necessary updates to the design of fire protection systems,” Queiroz said. “There’s a lack of accountability to make sure facilities that are already approved continue to comply with the code.”

Compounding this failure of the code compliance component of the Ecosystem in Rio, and Brazil as a whole, is a lack of public education related to fire safety, which leads to a lack of investment in safety, experts say. This is evident not only in September’s hospital fire, but also in the other recent major blazes that Rio has experienced.

“Brazil has been going through economic turmoil for the past six years or so,” Queiroz said. “Fire safety has taken a back seat to other issues, leading to reduced investment in safety, which increases the risk of fires. In general, people just don’t think about fire in their day-to-day lives. Educating people is a huge challenge. We have to raise their awareness of the danger of fire so that they want to invest in safety. This is the only way to prevent new tragedies from happening.”

A failure to invest in safety, as well as a lack of government action to provide the funding for such investments, is largely what led to the widespread destruction during the fire in Brazil’s National Museum late last year. The 200-year-old building lacked sprinklers and other basic fire protection measures needed to protect a building of its size and vulnerability.

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

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top photograph: Reuters