Walk in the park, northwest Chicago.
Walk in the park, northwest Chicago.
The inferno in London is out, mainly because the entire flammable contents of the building have burned up. Fire hoses cannot deliver water to the upper floors of such buildings, and the ladders trucks can bring to the scene don’t reach nearly high enough. Many more deaths will be recorded–I expect a toll in the dozens–as the search for the missing continues. Police and fire brigades told people to stay in their flats and close their doors rather than escaping, and those people have been incinerated. As the structure of the building, whether concrete or steel framed, has certainly been compromised, possible collapse will make it impossible to search for bodies for quite a while. [update 14/VII: they are using drones! Nature imitating art; the Economist big drone wrapup was published last week.)
How is such a thing possible? Well, first we should note that dying in a fire is rare and getting more so in all industrialized countries: annual fire deaths per million in the US are only about 12, and remarkably, down by two-thirds since 1979. The UK is on a similar trend and about a third safer overall. We should also note, as more information about administrative and regulatory failures dribbles out, that this was housing for poor people.
The ways to avoid fire deaths are as follows:
No. 1 is the biggie, and it has to do partly with electrical codes and enforcement, but progress in recent years has mainly to do with smoking, both less smoking overall and safer cigarettes. A third of residential fires used to be caused by cigarettes, usually dropped on upholstered furniture. Cigarettes used to be laced with enough saltpeter to keep them burning if not puffed on, so the tobacco company could sell another cigarette when one left in an ashtray consumed itself; at least in the US that’s no longer true. But fire can start in many ways; see 5. below.
No. 2 is occurring, because fewer fires mean engine and ladder companies are less busy, and because it’s politically difficult to close unnecessary fire stations. Nearly all engine and ladder sorties in the US now are actually medical calls.
No. 3 is a matter of codes and code enforcement: hour-ratings for partitions and doors, less flammable materials, UL listing for electrical components, etc. and honest, effective inspections to be sure that’s all happening. Otherwise known as job-killing regulatory government meddling in the free market, don’t you know. Here the US is disadvantaged by traditionally building with wood rather than masonry. It’s also a matter of the most reliable, proven, life- and building-saving technology, sprinkler systems; something the Grenfell Tower seems not to have had, even in the corridors and escape routes.
No. 4 involves a variety of features. Small things like an alarm system (have you checked the batteries in your smoke detectors lately?) and quick-release locks on the bars people in poor neighborhoods put on their first-floor windows matter. For larger buildings, it’s a matter of having two escape routes from every location, and one of these has to be protected from filling with the smoke that kills more people than heat and flame; an example is the exterior fire escape we see on older buildings. I was appalled to read in the Guardian that 1970’s high-rise UK buildings of the Grenfell era had “one escape stair which is not designed for a mass evacuation, but is designed for a small number of people to get out whose individual flats are on fire”. No; two stairs, and one has to be open to the outdoors (sometimes an interior “fire court” open to the sky) at every landing. When I was working in architects’ offices in the 70s and 80s, this was completely standard practice. It still is. If you live in a high-rise, do you know how to get to your fire stairs in the dark? If not, practice.
Twenty-four stories is a long way to walk down in the dark, afraid, aroused in the middle of the night from a sound sleep, in pajamas or nothing, especially with terrified little children. I would not live above the twelfth floor of any building. I wonder if the people enjoying the view from high up in the fifty-story condo buildings popping up in New York think about this.
No. 5 includes some training (point the fire extinguisher at the base of the flames) and occasional drills, not filling your apartment with unnecessary inflammable stuff (what doomed the partiers at the Ghost Ship in Oakland), not storing the gasoline can for your lawn mower in the same room as a water heater, staying in the kitchen when you have a frying pan on the burner, and so on. And do you know where your kitchen fire extinguisher is, and how to use it, and have you checked the pressure gauge?
Where fire comes to your house from outside, as in Mediterranean climate landscapes that burn regularly and will do so more with climate change, you have to maintain what we call “defensible space” in California, and stay on top of it as grass and brush try to grow into it.
The Japanese have a long history of living close together in wood and paper houses, and cooking indoors on open charcoal fires, but their fire death record is not much different from other industrialized countries: this is assuredly the result of learning to respect fire, and that hibachi. It’s also socially unacceptable to have a fire in Japan, an expert in fire safety told me a few years back: if you do, even a small one, you probably have to leave your home and move to another city. The FEMA study linked above notes, interestingly, that incendiary suicides inflate Japanese figures.
Every catastrophe has multiple ’causes’, so there will be lots to learn about this one as the facts come in. Whatever they are, they will include irresponsible, probably corrupt, behavior by people who should have known better.
[update 14/VI] Useful stuff is beginning to come in. Aside from the other terrible mistakes and oversights, it appears the exterior cladding, a Chinese aluminum/polyethylene sandwich, is so flammable that testing in Australia was suspended after the first sample practically blew up in the lab. Here’s an excellent post-incident report from a very similar fire in Australia. It has everything: ignition by cigarette, overcrowded units, cladding carrying the fire up the outside of the building…but also working alarms, sprinklers, and proper fire stairs for evacuation. Deaths and injuries: 0.
As details emerge regarding today’s awful shooting, the incident provides a timely reminder. There are many unbalanced people out there, in every faction across the country. Especially in this awful and contentious time, we need to reinforce the absolute norm of nonviolence on all sides in American politics. We yell. We hold up obnoxious signs. Maybe we engage in civil disobedience. But we never put an unkind hand on any political adversary. We never incite violence. We don’t promote stupid memes that blur the lines like the punch-a-Nazi thing.
The fact that President Trump and others violate these norms does not weaken our own obligation. Indeed it strengthens it.
Dear American Cancer Society,
Please do not call our home this year asking for a donation. When you subsidize an unworthy figure who is snatching healthcare from millions of people, and weakening protections for cancer patients, I will give my charitable donations elsewhere.
— David Fahrenthold (@Fahrenthold) June 12, 2017
As one would expect in an era of increased legalization and decriminalization, court referrals to marijuana addiction treatment are dropping like a stone. But for a reason that may surprise you, the number of people seeking marijuana addiction treatment is not going down overall.
To find out why, see my latest Washington Post Wonkblog.
California lawmakers pass bill prohibiting state assistance in enforcement of federal marijuana laws. California wants big insurance carriers to cover cannabis companies. California localities primed for legal recreational cannabis use. Big changes coming to Washington marijuana laws. Cannabis cultivation grows to 4.2 million square feet in Denver area. Gang that sold millions worth of Colorado pot outside state not unusual. Is the lack of Alaska pesticide rules for cannabis a gap in consumer protection?
Nevada tribes a step closer to legally growing, selling marijuana. License dispute could delay Nevada recreational pot sales. Nevada races to finalize legal marijuana rules. Safer Arizona continues saga for marijuana legalization.
No uptick in New Hampshire pot arrests since Massachusetts legalization. Vermont Governor may ask House Republicans not to block passage of pot legalization. Connecticut marijuana legalization hits speed bump. Connecticut pot legalization is latest issue debated, then tabled. Maine city to ban marijuana in wake of legalization. Tobacco wholesalers want in on Massachusetts recreational marijuana.
DOJ’s mysterious marijuana subcommittee. With these 4 words, the DEA head shut down any hope of legalizing marijuana anytime soon. Trump casts cloud over cannabis, but money keeps pouring in. Some cities, states help minorities enter marijuana industry.
Canada legal pot market won’t be able to meet the staggering demand if legalization happens next year. Alberta wants feedback on marijuana legalization. Quebec to hold public consultations. Quebec psychiatrists slam Ottawa‘s legal marijuana legislation. Uruguay sets path for Canada on marijuana legalization within international treaties.
What a regulated UK cannabis market might mean for business.
“The reason this is such a big deal has — we have this big, messy, wonderful country where we fight with each other all the time, but nobody tells us what to think, what to fight about, what to vote for, except other Americans, and that’s wonderful and often painful.
“But we’re talking about a foreign government that, using technical intrusion, lots of other methods, tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act. That is a big deal. And people need to recognize it.
“It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. They’re coming after America, which I hope we all love equally. They want to undermine our credibility in the face of the world. They think that this great experiment of ours is a threat to them, and so they’re going to try to run it down and dirty it up as much as possible.
“That’s what this is about. And they will be back, because we remain — as difficult as we can be with each other, we remain that shining city on the hill, and they don’t like it.”
–James Comey, 8 June 2017
We have a few years in which to find a presidential candidate. I’ve found mine, if he can be convinced to run. On either party’s ticket, or on a new one, as Emmanuel Macron has done in France.