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“I have made fire! Look what I have created!”
—Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland, island-marooned plane crash survivor in the film Cast Away

To early humans, fire meant survival. But fire evolved from friend to foe when it threatened our homes and cities, crops and forests. There were rudimentary tools for fighting fires, but water was—and still is—the best fire suppressant. That’s why household fire buckets (like the one shown on the back cover) were required by law in colonial America.

The 19th century brought significant improvements in fire protection and suppression. Volunteer fire corps transitioned into paid crews. Steam engines raced to fires under hooved horsepower. The first working fire hydrant was installed in New York City. Most significantly, a patent was issued in 1852 for the first sprinkler system.

In the interim, fires in America raged on. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed 17,000 buildings; the following year, a square mile of Boston’s business district was leveled. The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire spread so quickly that within 30 minutes, 150 people had either died in the flames or jumped to their death.

Out of such tragedies came change. For instance, the 1942 Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston, in which 492 people died, led to improvements in the enforcement of fire safety laws and ordinances, including requirements that public places have sufficient exits and that exit doors swing in the right direction.

Flash forward to the present. With multiple lifesaving fire codes, effective fire suppression equipment, and a wealth of fire protection knowledge, America should be well protected. Yet fires still occur, sometimes with great loss of life. Consider the 2003 fire at The Station nightclub in Warwick, R.I., in which 100 perished—many overcome by smoke or severely burned in the rush to escape a fire that raged out of control in minutes. After the blaze, discussion of sprinkler systems took center stage; you can read a similar discussion in “An Ounce of Prevention”, in which we talk with some of WPI’s Fire Protection Engineering Program graduates about their work in the field of fire protection.

People pay dearly for our nation’s poor record of fire prevention and control, including firefighters. In the 1999 Worcester Cold Storage warehouse fire, six firefighters perished because they couldn’t find their way out of the maze-like building. We reflect on this tragedy in “Safe Exit”, which highlights the efforts of a team of ECE faculty members to develop the First Responder Locator System, designed to track the location of fire and police personnel in a building emergency.

Living safely with fire is key to fire protection engineering today. The university’s 25-year-old Fire Protection Engineering Program and Center for Firesafety Studies have come a long way since they began in a small office with one professor. We look back with former director David Lucht; with new director Kathy Notarianni, we look ahead to the role WPI will play in working toward a firesafe America.

There’s much more in this issue, particularly our first in-depth interview with WPI President Dennis Berkey. We hope you enjoy the issue. As always, we welcome your comments.

Amy E. Dean
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Last modified: Dec 16, 2004, 13:29 EST
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