Lack of compliance, enforcement, education — learn which systemic issues NFPA says led to deaths in Grenfell Tower and other recent fires

by Brianna Crandall — July 21, 2017 — In the wake of last month’s Grenfell Tower fire in London, where around 80 people died or are presumed dead and many more were injured, serious concerns and questions around flammability of exterior cladding, the lack of fire sprinklers and the notion of “shelter in place,” among other subjects, were brought to the forefront by the news media and the public at large. Jim Pauley, president and CEO of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), addressed these troubling fire safety issues in this month’s edition of NFPA Journal, the association’s membership publication.

“On its own, last week’s high-rise fire in London was a horrendous tragedy. In combination with other recent events, some disturbing trends emerge that could set fire safety back for decades,” said Pauley, pointing to the several multiple-fatality fires that have occurred around the globe in less than one year, including:

  • The Oakland Ghost Ship fire in California, a former warehouse being used as living and entertainment space
  • A packaging factory in Bangladesh that killed 23 in a building with woefully inadequate fire protection
  • A wildfire in Tennessee that burned over 17,000 acres of land and killed 14 people
  • A raging wildfire in Portugal that claimed the lives of 62 people, many burned in their cars as they attempted to flee, raising similar questions about planning and preparedness
  • A Connecticut fire that took the life of a six-year-old girl when it ripped through a recently constructed house that, if it had been built to meet the national codes, would have had a home fire sprinkler and likely a much different outcome.

Pauley continued:

Taken together, these tragic fires reflect a larger global problem warranting action. Looked at in their entirety, they are a collective example of how, either intentionally or accidentally, the fire prevention and protection system has been broken. A system that the public believes exists and counts on for their safety — through complacency, bad policy and placing economics of construction over safety — has let them down.

Pauley notes that each of these scenarios, as well as many others, point to one or more contributing factors:

  • The use of outdated codes and standards
  • Acceptance of reduced safety requirements to save money
  • Ignoring referenced standards within a code
  • Lack of education around the application of the codes and standards
  • Reduced enforcement
  • A public unaware of the dangers of fire

Pauley’s article also addresses the vital roles that government; policymakers; codes and standards users; professionals involved in design, installation, enforcement and maintenance; and community jurisdictions play in ensuring the public’s safety. When any of those groups become complicit or lax in properly executing their roles and responsibilities, the consequences can be — and have been — catastrophic, Pauley noted.

Pauley concluded:

The system the public relies on for managing fire safety is broken, and a single solution isn’t the answer. It will take a systems approach to fix it. We may not be able to prevent every tragedy from occurring, but by recommitting to and promoting a full system of fire prevention, protection and education, we can help save lives and reduce loss.

Read the full version of Jim Pauley’s op-ed, which appears in the July/August 2017 issue of NFPA Journal.