This Sunday is the beginning of National Fire Prevention Week, a century-old public health observance created by the National Fire Protection Association that was first officially recognized by President Calvin Coolidge in 1925. And it’s no coincidence that you’ll find this week in October, since it commemorates the Great Chicago Fire, which burned more than 17,400 structures beginning on Oct. 8, 1871.
While that certainly sounds like a lot of buildings, the association now estimates that there are as many as 347,000 house fires in the United States each year. That means that somewhere in America, a home is catching fire every other minute. Those blazes account for more than $7 billion in property damage, and worse, kill more than 2,600 people and injure over 11,000 more.
And that’s just on the civilian side. Nearly 65,000 firefighters were injured battling blazes in 2020, according to the association, while federal officials report that more than 100 were killed. Firefighting is clearly one of the most dangerous jobs in America. Yet here on Long Island, nearly all of the 181 fire departments are volunteer.
That’s right. If you ever find yourself calling for help from the fire department, the men and women who show up at your door are almost certainly first responders who get nothing in return for their service except the satisfaction of knowing they can help.
That’s the purest definition of a hero.
It’s also a noble pursuit that has evolved from rather ignoble beginnings. In ancient Rome, a wealthy businessman said to be instrumental in the creation of what would become the Roman Empire — Marcus Licinius Crassus — put together a brigade of 500 slaves tasked with fighting blazes in the city. When smoke hit the sky, these slaves were there.
But with a catch. Crassus would negotiate with the building owner to buy it for what today would be pennies on the dollar — while it burned. If the owner sold, Crassus would instruct the slaves to extinguish the flames. If they didn’t sell, Crassus let it burn to the ground.
It would take Roman emperor Nero, in the first century, to build the first true fire brigade — one not seeking to profit from the misery of others — that most credit as the true beginning of one of society’s most essential services.
This year’s Fire Prevention Week campaign is “Fire won’t wait, plan your escape.” Homes burn faster today than ever before, according to the fire protection association. If your home catches fire and you’re inside, you could have less than two minutes to escape from the moment a smoke alarm sounds.
That means that having a plan in advance is more important than ever. And because every home is different, so will every plan be. The association recommends developing individual plans for everyone in a home — children, older adults, people with disabilities.
It’s also imperative to make sure there are smoke alarms in every bedroom, outside every sleeping area — like hallways — and on every level, including the basement. In fact, the only place you shouldn’t put alarms, the association says, is in your kitchen and bathrooms.
And if you can, hire an electrician to help you link all the alarms — including those for carbon monoxide — together. That way, if there is smoke in one part of the house, it will alert everyone, everywhere.
We all hope we can live a lifetime never having to call the fire department. Even if we were to be so fortunate, we can sleep soundly at night knowing that those heroes are out there, ready to save us if we are threatened. But we can help keep them safe, too, by making sure we’re ready if we aren’t so fortunate.
So if you see a firefighter this week, say thank you — both in words and by doing your part to stay safe.