Leadership

Op-Ed: Backup Cameras, but No Fire Sprinklers

While on my flight to speak at a fire safety event, an article caught my attention. It was titled “U.S Requires New Cars to Have Backup Cameras.” My first thought was there must be a huge problem if the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is requiring new cars to have backup cameras. Then I was somewhat surprised to read that there are nearly 210 backover deaths each year. About a third of those deaths are children, and many of these accidents are caused by parents. The article stated that rear-facing cameras would save between 59 and 69 deaths a year.

By contrast, the United States Fire Administration reports that fire kills 3,400 and injures 17,500 people each year. I was burned as a young child in a house fire. As such, I am acutely aware of the number of people who needlessly die or are injured in fires.

I sat on that flight with many mixed feelings. As a fire safety advocate, I’m excited any time a safety measure that will save even just one life is enacted. However, as a burn survivor, I felt frustrated and angry that similar safety measures haven’t been implemented in homes to prevent fires. What makes me even angrier is that the technology to prevent these deaths and injuries exists—they’re called fire sprinklers. It’s taken quite a few decades to install them in new homes at a very slow rate.

The NHTSA is to be highly commended and applauded for their public safety efforts. Since its inception, seatbelts have saved 280,000 lives and air bags have saved 28,000 lives. Now another safety device will be added to cars to prevent even more deaths.

Because of my past, I investigated how many children die in fires. I looked at the FEMA report “Fire Risk to Children 2010.” In 2010, 357 children died in fires. That’s about five times more children than those killed in backover deaths annually. The children most likely to die or be injured are newborns thorugh age four—those who can’t escape by themselves. If those statistics don’t grab at your heartstrings, I don’t know what would.

Anthony Foxx, United States Secretary of Transportation, said in the article, “Safety is our highest priority, and we are committed to protecting the most vulnerable victims of backover accidents—our children and seniors. As a father, I can only imagine how heart-wrenching these types of accidents can be for families, but we hope that today’s rule will serve as a significant step toward reducing these tragic accidents.”

Sometimes when children die in fires, no body is found. I can’t imagine having to bury a child, but I certainly can’t comprehend not having a body to bury.  

According to the FEMA report, 87% of fire-related casualties to children occurred in homes. That’s 87% of 357 children—310 children who die in their own homes. We have the capability of saving 310 children a year.  The technology exists—it’s a scientific fact that fire sprinklers save lives, reduce property loss and decrease injuries.

There’s no way to comprehend the devastating effects of burn trauma unless it happens to you or a family member. Why do we wait for a horrific event that warrants litigation before we’re compelled to change? Unless prevention becomes the highest priority of the fire service and its advocates, we can expect to continue to see these horrific statistics; this makes me very sad and irate at the same time.

I can only hope that comparing these statistics will somehow motivate fellow safety advocates and the fire service to take action. We need to stand united in the message that fire sprinklers save the lives of both citizens and firefighters.