• United States



by CSO Contributor

Disaster Lessons

Oct 01, 20067 mins
CSO and CISOData and Information Security

It might have started when a cow kicked a lantern into a pile of hay. Some say it was caused by a

meteor shower. These are two of the theories as to how the Great Chicago Fire of Oct. 8, 1871, started.

The fire that burned for two days, swept over 2,000 acres, killed more than 250 people and caused

$2.67 billion worth of damage in 2005 dollars, is commemorated in the United States every October.


Fire Prevention Week, this year from Oct. 8-14, puts a spotlight on fire prevention awareness. Fire

departments and schools bring safety lessons to the forefront for students, communites and

workplaces through events and activities. It is an opportunity to raise awareness about fire prevention

and what can be done in the workplace to ensure the safey of building occupants.

Today’s safety codes owe much to yesterday’s disasters. No one knows for certain how the Chicago fire

started, but what is known is how it was able to spread so rapidly. The fire’s destruction was aided by

the buildings’ close proximity to each other and because buildings and sidewalks were made of wood.

The wind blew the fire towards the commercial lumber and coal yards along the river, providing

additional fuel to feed the blaze. Fire departments weren’t notified right away and so the fire burned


The massive destruction in 1871 was a warning shot, but it took more than that for change to sweep

national building safety rules, says Casey Grant of the National Fire Protection Association. A second

fire ripped through Chicago just a few years later, in the same area. “The city began allowing rebuilding

to occur but they weren’t being smart about their zoning and the construction was haphazard,” Grant

says. “The second fire was the ultimate wake-up call. There were a lot of people crying that a change

was needed.”

And Chicago was not the only 19th-century American city to be crippled by fire. An 1872 fire in

Boston’s financial district spread in part because of closely-packed wooden buildings similar to

Chicago’s. A recent Boston Globe piece on the history of the Boston fire notes that, before the fire, the

city’s fire chief unsuccessfully had sought more firefighters, equipment and water supplies to respond if

flames hit the city’s vulnerable wooden structures. When fire spread, one thousand people were made


After fires damaged Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, Atlanta, Seattle and after the 1906 earthquake in San

Francisco drew attention to weak buildings and vulnerable neighborhoods, cities around the nation

passed new codes for street widths and building construction. Street width is important because it

provides natural fire breaks, says Grant. “Buildings began to be constructed a certain way to prevent


These developments in urban construction planning helped prevent fires from spreading rapidly across

cities, but other fire safety lessons were to come.

In 1911 in New York City, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed almost 150 female garment

workers, illuminated many areas in need of fire safety improvement. The fire took place on the ninth

floor, but the fire department’s ladders only reached the sixth. The doors opened inward so the women

were trapped inside as they pushed forward, preventing the doors from opening. Other exit doors were

blocked or locked. Flammable textiles were stored throughout the factory, and there were no fire

extinguishers or sprinklers. The only fire escape collapsed.

The fire affected only that one building, but it illuminated the inadequcy of firefighters’ resources and

safety codes. It also helped push employers to take more responsibility for the safety of their

workplaces. “What came out of Triangle was a shift towards [personal] safety,” says Grant. Restrictions

were made to prevent the blockage of escape routes. Factory doors were required to open outward.

Workplaces had to have multiple fire exits, clear pathways, sprinklers or extinguishers, and emergency

evacuation plans that were reviewed with employees and posted.

“One of the patterns that we see, particularly in American history, is that every time an incident is of the

magnitude that it gets the attention of the media, it gets the attention of the politicians,” says Deb

Potter, president of Potter and Associates International, a safety management consultancy. “The

politicians are then willing to get the attention of the regulators by enacting new laws and regulation as

well as providing funding for safety.”

Safety measures have come a long way from fire ladders that reach no higher than six stories, but

experts and policy makers continue to use disasters to improve workplace fire and evacuation plans.


Fire and safety experts took away new lessons from the World Trade Center disaster, according to a PBS

documentary on the twin towers’ collapse.

Among the lessons: the need for better communication among firefighters. A lot of attention was paid

to the responders’ ability to communicate with police, but improvements need to be made in the way

firefighters talk to each other at a disaster. In a tall building, radio communication is difficult so

technology needs to develop to address this problem. Evacuating civilians and firefighters slowed each

other down as they squeezed into the same narrow stairways. Ideally, firefighters should have stairways

dedicated to them, but at the very least, staircases should be wider and there should be more of


Another unforeseen problem in the WTC collapse was that sprinkler systems were connected to the city

water supply at only one place. If that connection had problems, the sprinkler system for that whole

floor wouldn’t work.

In the documentary, deputy director of the building and fire research laboratory at National Institute of

Standards and Technology (NIST). S. Shyam Sunder called for specially designed elevators to protect

against fire and impact. Those elevators could be used by firefighters but could also help evacuate the

mobility-impaired, which include those with medical conditions like asthma, high blood pressure or

pregnancy. Sunder also noted the need for redundant structural systems to prevent collapse.

During this year’s Fire Prevention Week, the National Fire Protection Association is working to reach

teachers, parents and students across the country through increased media use that includes Sparky

the Fire Dog appearances on children’s websites, and an FPW blog.

Local fire departments host events that include open houses at fire stations and visits to local schools.

“At NFPA in Massachusetts we host children from local preschools for a day of fire safety learning

activities as well as host a number of events in our building to spotlight the ongoing need to educate

everyone about what they can do to prevent fires,” says Lorraine Carli, assistant vice president of

communications for NFPA.

The NFPA offers professional seminars throughout the year on things like electrical safety in the

workplace, fire alarm inspection and interfaces, and evacuation. In addition, they host the World Safety

Conference and Expo in June.

Here are some important dates and developments in the history of fire safety, from a list

assembled by the National Fire Prevention Association:

” First fire prevention legislation passed, Cambridge, Mass., 1631

” Five-day Great Fire of London, England, 1666

” First joint stock fire insurance company, Philadelphia, Pa., 1810

” First rubber-lined cotton web fire hose patented by J. Boyd, Boston, 1821

” First alarm received from first fire box alarm system, Boston, 1851

” First practical fire engine is tested, Cincinnati, 1853

” First salaried fire department established, Cincinnati, 1853

” First U.S. patent on an automatic fire alarm system issued, 1857

” Great Chicago Fire, 1871

” First sprinkler system patented by P.W. Pratt, 1872

” First sprinkler head patented by H.S. Parmelee, 1874

” National Firemen’s Journal publishes first issue, 1877

” First firehouse pole installed, New York, 1878

” First mechanical water tower built, in New York, 1879

” First fog nozzle is patented, 1894

” National Fire Protection Association is founded, Boston, 1896

” American Society for Testing and Materials is founded, Philadelphia, 1898

” First national Fire Prevention Week proclaimed by President Warren Harding, 1922

” First state law banning public use of fireworks passes, Mich., 1929

” Ionization detector patented, E. Meili & W. Jaeger, Berne, Switzerland, 1947

” Society of Fire Protection Engineers is founded, Boston, 1950

” National Safety Council incorporated by Congress, 1953

” “Indiana Dunes” tests report, leads to home detector standards, 1975

” Americans with Disabilities Act passes, greatly affecting safety codes, 1990

Source: NFPA