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10 Burning Questions for David Lucht

David Lucht has spent 40 years in the fire protection field. In 1975, he was nominated by President Gerald Ford to serve as the first director of the newly formed U.S. Fire Administration. He was reappointed by President Jimmy Carter and held the position until 1978. Lucht left his government position to build and grow WPI’s Fire Protection Engineering Program and its Center for Firesafety Studies, which this year celebrated its 25th anniversary. In July 2004, he was succeeded by Kathy Notarianni ’86 (B.S. CE), ’88 (M.S., FPE) of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Lucht is now adjunct professor and director emeritus of the center, and associate vice president for university relations at WPI.

1. Your first foray into the field of firefighting was as a member of the Middlefield [Ohio] Volunteer Fire Depart- ment. What did you do?

In high school, I was a member of the first class of student cadet firefighters in that rural village. I washed the trucks, loaded fire hose, and barbecued chicken for the annual fund-raising dinner. One winter night, I helped dig through the ashes of a house fire in which five children had perished. I’m sure this experience influenced the direction of my life’s work.

2. What’s the coolest thing students see in WPI’s Fire Science Lab?

Flashover—when a small, localized fire in a room transitions to total room involvement, from floor to ceiling. It marks the time when firefighters start to “lose the ball game” in a building fire and people die. Actually seeing a flashover gives it real meaning for students.

3. What was the most devastating fire in American history? What lessons did it teach us?

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which consumed more than 17,000 buildings and left 90,000 people homeless. Chicago was a symbol for similar conflagrations happening in cities all over America. The first national codes and standards for buildings, neighborhoods, fire departments, and public water supplies that were created in response to such disasters eventually put a stop to citywide conflagrations.

4. What has been the most significant improvement in fire safety?

The low-cost residential battery-operated home smoke detector is credited as having had the most profound impact on reducing the U.S. fire death rate—by 50 percent over the past three decades. This device was conceived and developed in the 1970s by Duane Pearsall, who was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree by WPI in 1996.

5. In the preface to Making the Nation Safe from Fire: A Path Forward in Research [2003], you state that the United States continues to have the worst fire loss record in the industrialized world. What are we doing wrong?

We are not smart with our fire safety investments. We pile one reaction to a disaster on top of another without stepping back and looking at the big picture from an engineering point of view.

6. The report also states that the threat of fire “is neither well understood nor fully appreciated by policymakers and the public at large.” What has caused us to be so blind?

It’s a combination of failures by the media and by the fire profession to get the word out. People tend to react to “headline fires” such as The Station nightclub fire, in which 100 people died; the public demanded that policymakers improve codes and enforcement. But thousands of deaths occur each year that do not make headlines or receive national attention.

7. How real are Hollywood portrayals of fire—movies such as The Towering Inferno or Backdraft?

Not very. In a fire, the smoke is so dark and pervasive that you can’t see your hand in front of your face, much less breathe. A realistic interior view of a building fire would be a black screen.

8. How will WPI’s FPE program influence fire safety in the future?

Our graduates are the best-trained fire protection engineers in the world. Seeing them working in government agencies, engineering firms, fire departments, and industries of all kinds and giving talks at meetings of professional societies is my greatest reward. With the leadership of Kathy Notarianni, the next phase of FPE’s future is under way. She and her colleagues will continue to expand WPI’s impact on fire safety.

9. In your career, you have held positions in business, government, and academia. What has your professional journey taught you?

I’ve learned that the engineering mindset can be extremely effective addressing sociopolitical public policy issues. I wish more engineers would aspire to elected and appointed positions in government.

10. Besides fire, what excites you?

At the ripe old age of 61, I’m a budding artist. It’s exciting to paint a portrait that actually turns out to be a good likeness of the subject. When I retire from WPI, I plan to spend a lot of time with my art.

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Last modified: Dec 16, 2004, 13:51 EST
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