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Triangle Shirtwaist Fire 100th Anniversary

Posted on March 24, 2011 by Acting U.S. Fire Administrator Glenn Gaines

March 25th is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.  As we look back over a century of phenomenal improvements in fire and life protection, we know that this fire ushered in a new era in workplace safety and workers rights. Up until this time, the focus of the insurance and building industries was on protecting property. The Asch Building was designed to withstand a fire and it did.  However, the workers and contents were consumed.  There were no codes, as we know them today that dealt with life safety.

New York City Fire Chief Edward Croker, an early fire prevention advocate, had stated on various occasions before the fire, that the fire department could not effectively fight a fire above the 7th floor.  Ladder 20, the tallest in New York City, could only reach the 6th floor.  The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors.

The most important code changes that came out of this fire were the requirements for fire drills, limiting smoking in the workplace, and the posting of exit signs. There was no fire alarm system then and very few telephones to call in a fire.  Locked doors were a major issue along with very narrow stairs.

After this fire, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) as well as local authorities and state legislatures, especially New York, and eventually the Federal government changed the emphasis from simply preserving cities from fire to trying to safeguard lives.

An excellent synopsis of state and local reforms that grew in response to this tragedy is from the Cornell University digital library. In the next few years, the new board made changes to the Municipal Building Code, which provided a measure of protection by requiring the existence of safety devices such as fireproof materials and stairwells, fire alarms, extinguishers, and hoses. They also prohibited smoking in factories by 1916.

I hope you have taken the time or will in the near future to revisit the story about this sad but important event in our history. With each of the fires that have taken life and property from us, we have learned and we have worked to make the protection of life and property so much better. Let us not forget, however, that “the past is prologue,” which is engraved on the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, and reminds us to be ever vigilant to not repeat the tragedies of the past.

Below is just a small sample of what has been recently written on this topic:

Magazine Articles

Newspaper articles


USFA Library Resources on the Triangle Fire:

Previous Chief's Corner Entries
EMS Week 2014 – Dedicated For Life
Lessons Learned from a Significant Life Event
A Parent's Homework
2013 International Association of Fire Chiefs Fire-Rescue International Conference
Roadway Risk
International Fire/EMS Safety and Health Week
EMS Week 2013 – One Mission One Team
Reflecting on the 40th Anniversary of America Burning
The Etiquette of Being a Fire Chief (by Glenn Gaines, published on the Mu+ual Aid Blog)
The Roles of Fire and EMS Personnel in Armed Attacks
Keeping Kids Safe This Halloween
USFA's Initiatives in EMS
Resolutions for the New Year: Firefighter Health and Wellness
Where We Have Been and Where We Are Today
Not for Prime Time
Tribute to September 11th Heroes
Firefighter Safety in Extreme Heat
The U.S. Fire Administration's Research Program – Science Saving Lives
USFA - Your Partner in EMS
Triangle Shirtwaist Fire 100th Anniversary
African American History Month: A Celebration of Pioneers in the American Fire Service
Fighting Fire through Fire Prevention
Fire Prevention Week
Time to Check Your Smoke Alarms
Hard Times
Reflecting on Tragedy: The Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. Fire
Fire Prevention Week 2009
Novelty and Toylike Lighters
U.S. Fire Administrator Issues Statement Supporting Residential Fire Sprinklers, Code Changes

Links of Interest