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Preserving the Perishable: Remembering Our Past Protects Our Future

The Great Chicago Fire Currier & Ives Lithograph Of The Fire (1871) The Great Chicago Fire Currier & Ives Lithograph Of The Fire (1871)

Another Fire Prevention Week is upon us and the fire service takes this week to focus public attention on the need to practice fire prevention throughout the year. This is a necessary time to reflect that remembering our past helps preserve and protect our future. By looking back into history, we can chart a pattern of safety changes in fire prevention efforts that resulted from catastrophic events. This, my friends, is called learning from our past, ultimately improving our future.

President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Fire Prevention day in 1920. Since 1922, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has sponsored this public outreach program. Yet, it wasn't until 1925 when President Calvin Coolidge transitioned it into a week-long national observance. This is the longest-running public health and safety observance in America's history. The week that contains October 9th each year is proclaimed as Fire Prevention Week and every President since Coolidge has issued a proclamation focusing the nation's attention to stopping preventable fires. October 9th was selected as the date of the tragic Great Chicago Fire that started on October 8th but doing the most devastation on October 9th in 1871. The conflagration left thousands homeless, destroyed an estimated 17,000 structures and tragically killed approximately 250-300 people. The county coroner couldn't confirm the total fatality count attributed to the fire because several people drowned, or there were no remains. As legend would have it, the infamous fire was blamed on Mrs. O'Leary's cow and a lantern; however, this is considered folklore in our history. Also known as the forgotten fire, the Peshtigo fire occurred on October 8, 1871, in northeast Wisconsin that claimed in estimated 1152 lives. Ironically, the Peshtigo fire's anniversary usually receives little to no attention because of being overshadowed by the nearby fire in Chicago.

Significant tragic events in America's fire history have driven change. The Iroquois Theater fire on December 30, 1903, in Chicago that claimed 602 lives. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911, in New York City when 146 out of the 500 employees had died. The Cocoanut Grove fire on November 28, 1942, in Boston with 492 fatalities. Our Lady of the Angels school fire on December 1, 1958, killed 92 children and three nuns in Chicago. These fatal fires are among the many hard lessons the U.S. fire service has learned over the years. Failures in building construction, including doors opening inward, insufficient exits, and heavy fire loads to fundamental fire safety issues such as combustibles stored near open flames, exceeding building occupancy, and inadequate fire escape planning, was at fault in each of these events. The result was a catastrophic loss of human life. Today it's easy to take for granted smoke alarms, fire sprinkler and fire suppression systems, and escape plans but each of these was initiated from these impactful lessons learned in our fire history.

Educating the public is a yearlong mission that takes a special focus during fire prevention week. From the introduction of Sparky the Fire Dog to Smokey the Bear, from fire drills in schools to Exit Drills in the Home, from "stop drop and roll" to "change your clock, change your batteries," have all been created to reduce losses from fire in the United States. The important message from the (NFPA) during Fire Prevention Week, October 4-10, 2020, is "Serve Up Fire Safety in the Kitchen!"

Life Safety Codes also have been driven by the call for improvement to protect both citizens and firefighters, but change can be challenging to achieve. With every new fire code may be perceived as a cost; however, armed with the historical knowledge of our past tragedies, it is considered progress to the overall improvements to fire and life safety.

So let's connect the dots here. What occurs in our past drives our fire prevention in the future. Failure to remember our history positions us to repeat our past mistakes. Those past mistakes in fire history have been tragic, to say the least. We owe it to those lost souls to make sure that we never forget where we came from and how far we have advanced during fire prevention week.

This blog article was a collaboration with Christopher Baker (Director/PIO) and Dick DeVore (Chief Archivist).

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  • The National Fire Heritage Center
  • Address: 17701 Creamery Road  Emmitsburg, Maryland 21727
  • Phone: (210) 380-8364
  • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.