I had several long standing global concerns when I was in grade school.
It wasn't general anxiety or depression-related, but I certainly felt as though the weight of worldwide issues hung squarely on my small shoulders.
At the time in school there was a major focus on the environment (I would imagine there likely still is now). It wasn't just a hard-sell on earth day, it was the disappearance of rain forests, erosion due to overbuilding, overpopulation, oil spills, our reluctance to recycle, and the overzealous use of oil that would undoubtedly cause our planet irrevocable damage. It was our generation's tasks to make right what generations before had begun.
The gravity of the concern didn't feel just environmental either.
New media opened the front door to war, disease, and a myriad of reasons to be pessimistic about the future and the world our kids will someday inherit.
Now years later, as a father, I've heard similar sentiments prevail; "how could someone bring a child into the world today?" "I can't imagine how to parent with all the (fill in the blank) going on today." "Will there even be X around when our kids are old?"
I'm not going to pretend that everything is sunshine and roses for everyone. There are major geopolitical issues and wars and famine and poverty and disease. A great day for me could also be the worst day for someone else.
What I am hear to say is that when you adjust your focus from the immediate present and look out a just little more distant - there is so much promise in the world. And by so much promise I mean that the planet is getting healthier, cleaner, and the quality of human life is improving in ways that we've never seen before in human history.
There has actually never been a better time to bring a child into the world.
In Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler's 2012 bestseller "Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think", an author and engineer review historical data and trends that show how technology is achieving exponential improvements in computing, energy, and medicine.
This bestselling book details many eye-opening reasons for optimism with the trends our societies are experiencing.
These independent technology-based innovations have and will continue to drive major improvements to clean water access, food, energy, health care, education, and other facets of a first world standard of living for the planet's future nine billion people.
Not only does mainstream media not cover the positive trends in the world today, but the future of our planet is looking more urbanized, education, cleaner, and healthier.
Speaking of population, the United Nations recently released a DESA report projecting nearly 10 billion people in 2050 and over 11.2 billion people in 2100. Since this latest update there's been fairly widespread disagreement about these figures, with many researchers speaking out out about the projections that hinge on one major flaw: population growth rates are declining. Some countries have already peaked in population and are now in decline without immigration. Many expect that we, as a planet, will never reach more than 10 billion people.
This isn't news to you if you live in Europe or Japan, of course, but in the U.S. many of us seem unaware of this major global trend. Research shows that with urbanization and better education, couples have less children. This speaks to major positive impacts in using less resources and shaping a cleaner planet in the future.
Trends in Fire Protection
That's great Joe, but what does this have to do with fire protection?
First, as is my underlying theme in the whole website - engineering is going to save the world. I'm sure my wife would also suggest that scientists deserve some credit too, but this isn't her blog.
Second, don't be discouraged if you feel that the quality of our line of work is in freefall, that no one is entering the industry, or that we've lost all sense of pride in what we do. Big-picture trends in fire protection are very positive, with death rates due to fire steadily decreasing per capita over the last century. The unrelenting overall trend is that we are doing something right as fewer people per capita are dying now from building fires.
Fire fatalities have been and continue to decrease with advancements in code adherence, our knowledge of fire protection, and shared education of the subject. Just the last 30 years across Europe and the US there's been major improvements in fire safety:
Global trends in fire deaths have decreased over the last quarter-century as shown in this US FEMA study.
Third, if you've ever felt similarly barraged by the negativity in the media or fears that we're only one step away from global catastrophe, I would wholeheartedly encourage you to read or listen to the book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think.
There's no summary that I could put together that I feel would do the book justice.
Of the fifty-plus books I read last year this was without-a-doubt the most impactful. [On a side note, if you're wondering how I average 50 books a year - I cheat and listen on audible.com. You can actually get the book Abundance and another book, for free, with a free trial here]
If you've read Abundance, comment below on your impression. If not, I'd highly encourage you to read it and let me know what you think (shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org). I promise the read will be worth your time.
If you've enjoyed this article, consider subscribing to these free weekly posts here.
Here's a few other book reviews:
Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903
Fahrenheit 451 & The Thirst For Knowledge
Triangle: The FIre That Changed America
Diamandis, Peter H. Abundance: the Future Is Better than You Think. Simon & Schuster, 2015.
Fire Death Rate Trends: An International Perspective. FEMA, July 2011, www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/statistics/v12i8.pdf.
United Nations Population Division | Department of Economic and Social Affairs. United Nations, www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications/trends/population-prospects.asp.
I once nearly fell asleep when taking an ACT Exam. It was an Saturday morning and the Reading portion of the exam was by far my weakest.
Trying to digest short stories on the "sleeping tendencies of bats in river caves" in the early morning after a (17-year old's) Friday night could put just almost anyone to sleep. Needless to say, I bottomed out on that test and I'm still not sure my mother has forgiven me for it.
Now? I love reading. I try to consume anything I can, especially on fire protection. That and I write in the wee early morning.
The irony of my 180-degree turnaround is not lost on me. I've written before about how knowledge is not just gleaned from education, and also about how we have to be adamant consumers of technical content if we want to lean and grow as fast as we can.
Despite my beginnings as an awful reader, I am now always looking for sources that can help deepen my understanding for fire protection. Here's three you may not know about that I'm excited to be following in 2018:
1. The Code Coach
If you haven't come across Aaron Johnson's writing and website, check out TheCodeCoach.com. Aaron is an author and freelance consultant who has written over four-hundred articles, white papers, and various pieces centering around fire service, fire protection practices, and life safety considerations.
Aaron has written several works, including his latest Fire Prevention Blueprint: Seven Disciplines for Building Effective Fire Prevention Organizations, a free guide The Consultative Approach to Fire Prevention Problems, Risk Assessment Guide for Aviation Facilities, and Sun Tzu and the Art of Fireground Leadership.
Aaron is a published author and speaker who posts regularly at TheCodeCoach.com
Aaron also is a regular speaker at industry conferences, is a member of the International Code Council, National Fire Protection Association, ARFF Working Group, and the Florida Fire Chiefs Association. See more about his work at Aaron's contributions to the industry at TheCodeCoach.com.
2. NFSA's TechNotes
There are so many gray areas to code, and even more people in fire protection that can read the same verbiage and interpret it different ways.
The National Fire Sprinkler Association offers an "Expert of the Day" service to members, where industry veterans provide informal interpretations on fire sprinkler codes and standards. This is a tremendous value for designers and AHJs both as an impartial party of experts that can help weigh in on issues.
While this service is worth the value of the membership alone, these Expert of the Day questions and answers are summarized monthly and distributed to members as TechNote email updates. I can't begin to state how much I've learned about fire sprinkler systems through these informal explanations.
3. NFPA 25 Inspector's Forum
Want to see what's happening in the field? If you're interested in a rowdy, photo-rich view of field installations and inspections, then this public Facebook group is for you.
The NFPA 25 Inspector's Forum has it all; the "here's today's repair" to "what were they thinking?," often with the vulgarity to go with it. I very much enjoy seeing the variety of opinions and issues that this group surfaces.
Daily posts from a group of over 2,000 field experts serves a range of questions, head-scratchers and funny posts.
These are the information outlets I'm currently excited about. What do you follow that you find helpful? Comment here.
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I grabbed something different this week and revisited the classic Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. If you have not read the short fiction, it is centered around Guy Montag, a fireman in the near future who ignites rather than fight fires.
His dystopian world is governed by invasive mass media and a real fear for independent ideas and thought. People have little time or regard for each other or any thirst for knowledge, rather preferring information that are “digest of digests”, compoundings of simple summaries so vanilla and basic as to not offend any for feeling unintelligent.
While we don’t live in the exact environment Bradbury describes, there are parallels to our current day. Ever passed someone with a cell phone that wouldn’t recognize your existence? Ever get the impression like mass media is invasive, or a source of constant noise?
Fire in the novel is the tool by which this dystopian society denounces and discredits individual thought, effectively censoring anything that could be considered contrary to public needs. The title gets its name from the autoignition temperature of a book (although we know now that books self-ignite at ranges of temperatures which are dependent upon the materials).
Besides using fire as a theme throughout the novel to describe the pains of censorship, I find the biggest parallel to our industry is concept of individual knowledge growth. Knowledge or true independent thought cannot be gained simply by asking "how". Rather, it can be far more important to ask "why?".
We live by standards. In fire protection, especially in the United States, we are constantly in the realm of prescriptive code requirements whose rules we commit to memory and treat in high regard.
But why are those rules in place? It is not enough to simply know how plans are arranged, systems are installed, or how inspections are conducted. Our value as an expert is all about understanding the why, or the importance and implications behind the rules.
What is the good of experience if you've never stopped to ask why?
I have experienced several times in group or teaching environments where where learners want to know the how but not the why. How to lay out sprinklers with a given obstruction? How to layout fire alarm appliances for a movie theater?
How to orient branch piping for a dry system in a parking garage?
As a teacher it can be easy to deliver the how and provide a solution. But how much is lost in the opportunity to learn and teach in that moment? We fail our understudies if we don't provide ample reasoning as to why decisions are made or solutions are suggested. Our goal is to develop knowledgeable thought leaders, not machines that duplicate past work.
As a learner it can be all too easy and tempting to find short term solutions without digging deeper. In the design and construction industries, time can be our most valuable asset which does not lend itself to long duration of self study.
In order to make our experience translate to wisdom, we must ask why.
Good engineering judgement, often related to experience (but not necessarily a guarantee from it) is built upon a constant thirst for learning and growth. That thirst may be what brought you here.
I won’t even pretend to say that I’ve captured the why behind such a deep and varied engineering discipline like fire protection. It will be many years and many challenges before I will begin to scrape the surface of understanding much of the why behind our profession.
But I will make the most of that journey by asking why.
What you do is important.
I was again reminded of the critical nature of fire protection planning, prevention, and response when reading Nat Brandt's 2003 book "Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903." It was and still is the largest loss of life in U.S. History due solely to a fire.
Touted proudly as "Absolutely Fireproof," the Iroquois Theatre opened as destination of grand opulence and ornate design. On December 30th, just over a month after opening, a calcium arclight on stage shorted, causing roughly 6-inches of wire to overheat and ignite. A nearby drop curtain quickly caught fire, spreading the flames up through the vast amounts of scenery material above the stage.
Attempts to extinguish the fire using chemical canisters were ineffective, and an asbestos fire curtain failed to lower into place due to lighting supports that obstructed the curtain's path. In an attempt to thwart the electrical nature of the early fire, stage lights were shut off, but broken fuses then left the auditorium and lobby without any light. Covered, confusing, unmarked exits and some with locked doors made egress in the auditorium and through the lobby impossible for many, resulting in a rushed panic, trampling, and further blocking of exits.
Within five minutes of ignition nearly the entire set above the stage was inflamed. A large iron door to the rear of the stage was opened by stagehands escaping the fire, only giving fresh air to the fire. Skylights above the stage, which had intended to open as smoke and heat vents, were inoperable due to clamps not removed after installation. Exhaust above the rear of the auditorium pulled smoke up and into the auditorium.
Within a half hour the fire was completely extinguished, with a death toll due to trampling and smoke inhalation that still is unfathomable.
Contributors to Loss of Life
Early attribution to the 602 deaths from the fire was incorrectly blamed upon panic, in part a chauvinist attitude that the crowd full of women and children acted inappropriately. Later study and report identified numerous major contributors to the major loss of life as
It was mentioned that given our modern understanding for fire hazard and egress, it was surprising that most of the 1700 people in attendance that day were even able to escape.
Following the fire, tougher inspections began throughout the country and in theaters worldwide. All theatres in Chicago were closed until inspected for safety could be completed.
After years of legal disputes, ultimately no one was found legally responsible for the tragedy. Reform brought clearer language to ordinances with better-enforcing authority, but even those were slow to change. Major changes as a result of the fire included:
Thoughts on The Book by Nat Brandt
This powerful volume was well comprised and focus almost entirely on the fire and its aftermath with long-standing implications. I would recommend it for those who want to understand the awful implications of very poorly planned construction paired with lack of enforcement.
As a father, this was a very difficult read. There were stories of efforts to escape the fire by so many (successful and unsuccessful), but particularly awful was the large numbers of women and children who couldn't escape. I cannot imagine the incredible toll this event had for victim's families. It is truly sad that such a long list of fallacies were overlooked to create such a horrendous tragedy.
Do we have the problem solved today? Do all areas of the world have resources to prevent these kinds of tragedies? I wish the answer was yes. What I can say is that I feel fortunate to live in a time and location where there is more recognition and enforcement for life safety, and to be in a position to help contribute towards a safer built environment.
Protecting life is important. What you contribute as part of the fire protection industry is important.
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It was a Saturday at closing time on March 25, 1911 in the heart of New York City. Young women (mostly immigrants) and some men were preparing to begin their single day off (a result of recent major labor reform) when a fire broke on the 8th floor of the Asch Building in Manhattan, endangering many and ending as the greatest workplace disaster in the US for the following 90 years.
David Von Drehle's 2003 non-fiction account of the Triangle Waistcoat Factory fire offers a thorough investigation of the social struggle for labor rights and a deep depiction of the era in which the awful event occurred.
The book focuses on the major labor disputes at the time, recognizing early beginnings of "sweat shops" (named for owners who would 'sweat' or cut pay for employees after they complete work and had earlier agreed to higher wages). Large immigrant influxes composed the early manufacturing labor in often cramped, poor conditions with 7-day weeks and long working hours.
The focus then shifts to the fire itself, detailing the development from a likely discarded cigarette to rapid growth from heaps of discarded textiles which ended up taking 146 lives. Locked exits (which were intended to funnel exiting and prevent theft), inadequately planned and installed fire escape, no sprinklers, ladder trucks which couldn't reach the height of the building, and severe lack of drills and warning about the fire all contributed to the disaster.
After the fire the book focuses on the trials of the owners, a Factory Investigation Commission, and the social reform for workplace condition improvement brought about by the labor unions formed in that era. Following the fire and recommendations for the independent commission, New York State legislature passed thirty-eight new laws regulating labor, wages, and safety, including mandates for exit door locking and swing direction, fire escape construction and design, egress access, and installations for alarm and sprinkler systems. Many states followed suit thereafter.
The book is a vivid account of the era, although it spends much more time in social injustice and labor reform than on the fire event and consequences of the fire than a fire protection professional may prefer.
Have you read it?
p.s. If you're interested in reading along with us, our next book is Chicago Death Trap by Nat Brandt, an account on the Iroquois Theater Fire of 1903. We'll review that volume on September 27th.
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Joseph Meyer, PE, is a Fire Protection Engineer in St. Louis, Missouri. See bio on About page.