Martin M. King, State Coordinator, National Fire Sprinkler Association – Wisconsin Chapter
(Appeared in the June 2019 issue of The Dispatcher)

I remember back a couple decades ago as a firefighter, when the EMT refresher course added ‘situational awareness’ to the curriculum, specifically as a verbalized portion of the practical exam. Many of us ‘old-timers’ smiled at something that was obvious. If you were in a dangerous place you needed to watch your back, but if you were in a public place you were safe. That is no longer the case. The past couple years have shown that firefighters are at risk in both private and public spaces. There have been increased attacks on first responders, not the least of which has been to law enforcement. This is troubling, because if someone would attack a trained, armed police officer, what would stop them from attacking an EMT or a firefighter?

The fire service must be aware of not only the main objective of their response, but they may also have to anticipate the actions of bystanders who may insert themselves into the situation. Scene safety is a large part of today’s calls. Firefighters and EMT’s must learn to expect the unexpected in every response no matter how small, never knowing what may happen from one moment to the next.

When I was a fire marshal, I used to teach our firefighters about prevention issues and protection systems. Too often I heard that if they encountered a fire sprinkler protected building, it would be a ‘nothing call’ – not much for them to do. I would emphasize that not all fire sprinkler systems were designed to control fires. Some systems, for example, NFSA 13R and 13D residential systems, were created as life safety systems, meaning that their design was to contain the fire long enough to effect occupant evacuation. These systems were designed to delay or keep flashover from occurring. Making matters more complicated is the fact that some owners fail to properly maintain the fire sprinkler system or fail to update it based upon commodity storage requirements. In addition, there may be tampering issues from outside sources, or environmental issues that could also affect the system.

In March 2004, a Firefighter Life Safety Summit was held where they created 16 Life Safety Initiatives to ensure that Everyone Goes Home (www.everyonegoeshome.com). The fourteenth and fifteenth initiatives support safety through prevention and protection. They specifically identify early suppression as a means to protect firefighters. For those who have not read these initiatives, they are well worth the time.

The fire service has always confronted danger. Firefighters run into places where people are running out; they run toward danger. Unfortunately, it is not often easy to see what dangers there may be. Responders need to stay vigilant and have situational awareness of their surroundings.

Simply said, “Stay safe so everyone goes home.”

Fire sprinklers save lives, property, water, money, jobs, the environment, and more. For more information on how fire sprinklers save lives and property, please contact Marty King at [email protected]. Or, visit the Wisconsin Chapter of the National Fire Sprinkler Association at www.nfsawi.org; the National Fire Sprinkler Association at www.nfsa.org; or the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition at www.homefiresprinkler.org.