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David Lucht: Let's Be Intolerant Of Fire Traps

The Providence Journal: David Lucht: Let's Be Intolerant Of Fire Traps

WORCESTER - At recent hearings held by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and state commissions in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, strong recommendations have been discussed for significant changes in fire-safety codes in response to the Station nightclub fire on Feb. 20, which killed 100 people. Improved codes are certainly a critical step in ensuring public safety and preventing future fire disasters, but in truth, new regulations are only half of the solution.

The bigger challenge in protecting public safety lies in changing America's cultural attitudes and tolerance for unsafe buildings.

It is perplexing how outraged we are after a fire disaster occurs, yet how tolerant we are of buildings that are disasters waiting to happen. Fire-safety experts will not be surprised if there are no new lessons to learn from this deadly nightclub incident. The sad fact is that unheeded lessons have been repeated time and time again, dating back at least as far as the 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire, in Boston.

Every year, many people die needlessly because of our cultural indifference to fire safety before the disasters occur.

This is simply not rocket science. We know how to build and operate buildings that are not programmed for disaster. The West Warwick nightclub clearly had all the elements needed for catastrophe to happen -- it was just waiting for the needed heat source to set the event into motion. The tragedy is that so many unsuspecting patrons entered this facility with no knowledge whatsoever that the space they occupied could turn into a deadly inferno in less than a minute.

The question that lingers is why we tolerate buildings like this in the first place.

The answer? American culture is soft on unsafe buildings and on the enforcement of laws relating to structural safety. For comparison, look at how we deal with traffic-safety enforcement. Most people know that if they are caught speeding, they will be pulled over and held accountable for their unsafe behavior. We all know that sick feeling in the pit of our stomach when police lights are spotted flashing in the rear-view mirror.

The police officer will probably issue a summons, with a fine and a possible court appearance. And if it happens again, the same accountability will apply, often at a more stringent cost. We are programmed to obey traffic-safety laws and know that we face tough consequences if we do not.

Surprisingly, this same level of accountability does not apply to fire safety. Our culture is habitually tolerant of unsafe buildings, at least until disaster strikes. The enforcement of fire-safety laws and regulations does not even come close to that of traffic safety. If an enforcement officer finds the exits of a public venue blocked or locked, the owner is typically asked to simply fix the situation, and there is rarely a summons issued or fine imposed for the unsafe act.

It would be unusual for the violator of a fire-safety code to feel the same sick feeling in the pit of the stomach as when caught speeding on the highway. Perhaps if our society became more aggressive about holding offenders accountable before disaster strikes, building safety would be taken more seriously.

While we will never live in a risk-free society, we do know how to make buildings safer from fire. People have a right to assume they are not innocently walking into a disaster waiting to happen. If we are serious about preventing more tragedies like the one that happened in Rhode Island, a more assertive approach is needed before the fires happen. Our culture needs to become less tolerant of unsafe buildings.

A higher level of accountability needs to be ingrained in the way we think about building safety and the way we enforce laws and regulations. Cultures do change, as demonstrated in other arenas of public safety and health such as smoking and drunken driving.

Action by public officials and citizens groups across America can lead the way to an attitude of greater intolerance for unsafe buildings. What better memorial could there be for those who perished as a result of the Station fire?

David Lucht, is a professor and director of the Center for Fire Safety Studies, at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

August 5, 2003

 
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