Today during some rare downtime at work, I was privileged to receive a phone call from a man that I greatly look up to named Chief Jack Murphy. If you are in the fire service and do not recognize his name, I guarantee that he has impacted your career in some manner, whether you are aware of it or not, from the tireless work he has done advocating on our behalf for safety within the building codes.
Our conversation ranged from the recent Grenfell Tower fire in London, combustible exterior cladding, and the on-going saga of mass timber wooden high-rises. Nearing the end of our discussion, a reference was made to a keynote speech that a mutual friend of ours presented at FDIC a few years ago, and when I got home I was inspired to look it up and watch it again. This keynote speech was presented by Sean DeCrane, who is a retired Battalion Chief from the Cleveland Division of Fire, and was themed around the idea of being a well-rounded firefighter. Just like Jack, throughout his career Sean has been incredibly involved with organizations such as Underwriters Laboratories, the International Association of Fire Fighters, and the International Code Council, all with the purpose of educating and advocating on behalf of firefighters for safety within the various building codes used throughout North America.
During the speech, he talks about his time spent riding Rescue Squad 1 in Cleveland where they prided themselves on being aggressive firefighters, yet it wasn’t until later in his career that he was unexpectedly introduced to the concept of firefighters becoming involved in the building code process. This ended up having a tremendous impact on the rest of his career, and although Chief DeCrane never spent a day in the fire prevention division, we as firefighters have all greatly benefited from the work that he has done.
Another key contributing factor to Chief DeCrane’s involvement in this area, and a defining moment for the entire fire service on the subject of building construction and codes, occurred as a result of the line of duty death of Lieutenant Arnie Wolff of the Green Bay Fire Department. On August 13th 2006, Lieutenant Wolff lost his life during a structure fire after falling through an unprotected engineered floor system. After a full investigation by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), one of the recommendations made was: 'Municipalities, Building Code Officials and Local Authorities having jurisdiction should consider modifying the current codes to require that lightweight trusses are protected with a fire barrier on both the top and bottom.'
It then goes on to say that: 'Municipalities, Building Code Officials, and Local Authorities having jurisdiction should also include experienced fire personnel throughout any developmental review process concerning life safety to the public and fire department members.'
This became a catalyst for an increased engagement from the fire service in the code process, as well as the Underwriters Laboratories study titled: 'Structural Stability of Engineered Lumber', yet there is still so much work to be done, in terms of involvement between the fire service and the enforcement of safety through building codes.
One of my favorite quotes from the fire service comes from the Anchorage Fire Department and is posted in their training facility:
“I am not here for me, I am here for we, and we are here for them”.
I can’t think of a more accurate description for the way I feel about the fire service. This job is about personally serving the men and women you work with and collectively coming together to serve the public. We are here for THEM.
Many within the fire service have grasped ahold of this quote, and rarely a day goes by where I don’t see it posted or referenced somewhere on social media. Tonight, while I was reflecting on Sean’s speech and my conversation with Jack, I couldn’t help but feel that there is an area that many of us could become much more involved with to truly make us well-rounded firefighters.
Throughout the U.S. and Canada, the construction of buildings, which is ultimately our work environment, is dictated and governed by our building codes. The International Building Code is predominately used throughout the United States and the National Building Code of Canada sets the Canadian standards. Regardless of whether you are in Canada or the United States, building codes represent the MINIMUM standards for the construction of buildings, and this is something that we need to be fully aware of as firefighters. The construction industry is so strongly driven by the almighty dollar, and the majority of the committees that are involved in developing and reviewing future changes to the codes are overwhelmingly comprised of representatives from within the construction industry. One other important thing that we need to understand is that local municipalities, or the authorities that have jurisdiction, can choose to alter these standards as they see fit, and quite often these variances are granted without the men and women riding the rigs ever knowing.
Many of us as firefighters often think that building and fire codes should be left to those in our fire prevention divisions, but that is absolutely false. In order to gain a hold of key votes, have our voices heard, and shape the future of our work environments, it is crucial that we as firefighters take a stand and become much more involved in this aspect of our profession. Through recent advances in technology, many of the building codes have systems in place where we can now cast votes and provide public input on proposed changes completely online, without ever having to leave the comfort of the reclining chairs in the firehouse.
Being a well-rounded firefighter goes so much deeper than just being proficient in our skill sets, and if we truly believe the words when we say “I am not here for me, I am here for we, and we are here for them”, then we need to make sure we are doing everything we can for those that we swore an oath to protect. We owe it to THEM.