Monday, September 17, 2018

National Museum of Brazil Fire [Why We Do This Job]

On the evening of September 3, 2018, the National Museum of Brazil was gutted by fire. This 200 year old institution, a former palace for the Portuguese royal family, housed more than 20-million items and artifacts. Ninety percent of these items have been lost. These items represent a past that no longer exists for Brazil, languages that are no longer spoken, skeletal remains of the earliest living humans, and 200 years of research and collected knowledge.

This tragic loss serves as a poignant reminder for the reason why we, fire prevention, protection, and life safety professionals, do this job everyday. And the importance of our role in preventing these tragedies within our communities.

Several years ago the United States Fire Administration published a document that outlined the five impacts of fire. The premise of the document was that no fire is ever “just a fire”. Fire loss, of any size, has the potential to affect the community and the organization in five distinct ways: economically, organizationally, legally, psychologically, and politically.  As the news stories and editorial pieces continue to come out on the National Museum fire, we can clearly see how these five impacts of fire are affecting the local community, the people of Brazil, and International interests.

This is evident in the headlines and stories that include the following quotes:

“...our tangible record of life on earth…”
“...destruction of careers…”
“...a crime…”
“...systemic neglect of cultural institutions…”

Records and reports dating back to the 1950’s show a pattern of fire protection and life safety neglect. Recent citizen complaints identified the specific hazards of flammable plastic roofing material and exposed and jury-rigged electrical wiring. Additionally, other reports state “beyond a few fire extinguishers and smoke detectors, the museum did not have a fire suppression system.”

Preliminary reports have identified the cause of the fire as originating from a paper balloon lantern or an electrical short circuit in one of the museum’s lab areas.  However, there are three core reasons, at the highest government levels, that allowed this preventable loss to happen:
  • Tight budgets and availability of funds
  • Mismanagement of money and resources
  • Neglect and lack of prioritization 
These three dangerous actions and mindsets are not unique to Brazil, but are common throughout many communities. Beyond our responsibilities related to code compliance, plan review, and fire inspections, as fire protection professionals we also have a great responsibility to mold and change mindsets of our community leaders and citizens. We must constantly work to keep investments in  fire protection and life safety at the forefront, and consistently reiterate the life altering effect and impacts that lack of these essential services and systems will lead to.

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