The Race to End Fire Deaths

Burn marks during a test of an upholstered furniture from a regular cigarette (left) and an early "fire-safe cigarette" in the NIST laboratory. (Courtesy: NIST)

A century ago, the Triangle Fire stunned the U.S. The death of 146 people, mostly young women working in a factory, led to outrage, which emboldened unions and changed labor laws. It also led to a profound change in how we work to prevent fires. Robert Solomon works for the National Fire Protection Association, a body founded by insurance companies in 1896. Among other things, the NFPA writes model building codes — and Triangle changed the way that was done, says Solomon:

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was kind of that watershed moment when everybody said ‘enough!’ You know, when you look at the building regulations at that time, many of them were really directed at preserving the building itself, the structure, and the contents — but the people, you know, kind of not given a very high priority. So, Triangle Shirtwaist was the watershed moment that got everybody’s attention.

And a little attention went a long way. Across the long arc of the last 100 years, accidental deaths from fire have dropped an astonishing 90 percent in America. It’s a remarkable, unappreciated achievement. But it also makes us wonder: what’s left? If we’ve come this far, what’s stopping us from plotting our way away from death by fire with better building codes and better technology?

One of the people hard at work on this is Dan Madrzykowski, a fire protection engineer with the National Institute of Standards and Technology. This year, two big changes are coming to California and other states — one that compensates for the careless behavior of smokers, who are still the leading cause of deadly fires. The other brings the fire department into your home.

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