Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on January 11, 2022.

Preventing the Preventable

An investigation into deadly home fires in Chicago uncovers lapses at every level of local government, a critical component of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem 


I recently read a troubling story in the Chicago Tribune titled “The Failures Before the Fires.” The piece was part of an investigative series and was a collaboration between the Tribune and the Better Government Association, a government watchdog group. The story analyzed thousands of Chicago and Cook County records related to fatal home fires that occurred between 2014 and 2019, and found that in 42 of those fires—in which 61 people died—there were previous fire safety issues that had been identified but not addressed by city officials. The problems included missing or nonworking smoke alarms, overcrowding, blocked exits, and electrical issues.

The reporting left no doubt as to who was at fault. “Responsibility for these failures lies with the city’s elected leaders, who cut back on inspections, eased regulations, and failed to follow through on promises of reform after headline-making tragedies,” the Tribune reported. “[Responsibility also lies] with city lawyers and hearing officers who deferred to property owners…and with front-line inspectors and their bosses at the Department of Buildings—an agency created after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 specifically to prevent fire-related tragedies.”

It is circumstances like these in communities across the country that led NFPA to frame safety as the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem. The ecosystem is an interconnected system of eight cogs that must work together in order to protect people and property from harm, and it begins with government responsibility. Government must maintain an effective policy and regulatory environment supporting fire, electrical, building, and life safety. The Chicago story also highlights the ecosystem cogs of code compliance, where resources are in place to support effective code enforcement, and an investment in safety, where safety is prioritized across the entire community. These ecosystem components are paramount, but there is also a critical need for the public to be educated about the dangers of fire and other hazards in order to contribute to their own safety.

NFPA recently completed a seminal research report titled “Fire Safety in the United States Since 1980.” It assessed the reduction of losses due to fire over the last four decades, chronicled the achievements since the 1973 “America Burning” report, and identified both the remaining and the emerging challenges. All of this was analyzed against the framework of the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem.

Three key findings from the report amplify the failings cited in the Tribune/BGA story. “A lot of progress has been made in the years since ‘America Burning’,” the NFPA report observed. “However, the success in taming fire, one of humanity’s oldest enemies, has unfortunately led to fire safety taking a back seat to other societal concerns that seem more pressing”—as the story demonstrates, we cannot let complacency lead to practices that fail the residents of any community. Additionally, the NFPA report reminded us that “the biggest success story, especially in relation to home fires, is the increasing presence of smoke alarms.” Although smoke alarms have contributed significantly to reducing home fire deaths, the majority of those deaths occurs in homes with no smoke alarms and no working smoke alarms. Finally, the NFPA report observed that “the most successful recipe for fire safety in the built environment is the implementation of fire safety technologies through mandated codes and standards,” where the latest codes and standards are used and enforced.

The Tribune/BGA series served as poignant testimony that we can and must do better to prevent losses from fire, and as a wakeup call that safety lapses cannot be ignored without the risk of tragic consequences. You can read the entire series online, in English or Spanish, at

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