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Reflecting on the 40th Anniversary of America Burning

Posted on May 3, 2013 by U.S. Fire Administrator Ernest Mitchell, Jr.

On May 4, 1973, under a cover letter addressed to The President, The Report of the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control arrived at The White House. The report’s abbreviated title America Burning (PDF, 7.5Mb) hit home with firefighters because it seemed to them that America truly was burning.

At an alarming rate, many of America’s urban and rural areas suffered devastating fires. Thousands of citizens and hundreds of firefighters were dying in fires every year. Arson fires were a major concern. The National Commission that studied the fire problem knew it would be a difficult challenge with seemingly insurmountable obstacles to get the situation under control.

They were not the first group to examine the fire problem. Shortly after World War II, the President's Fire Prevention Conference of 1947 centered their fire safety strategy on engineering, enforcement, and education–the 3-Es.   America Burning squarely placed within the public’s view the stark reality and haunting images of fire deaths, injuries, and property losses. These were the very same images held by veteran firefighters, whether they served in rural or urban fire environments. 

The Commission defined not only the scope and extent of our longstanding fire losses, they analyzed the various problems in a systematic method. They offered 90 detailed recommendations directed at government agencies from the federal level down, as well as to private organizations with a stake in fire prevention and protection.

There were recommendations regarding smoke alarms, fire sprinklers, and safety codes that would contribute, directly and indirectly, to saving thousands of lives from fire in the span of 40 years. The national level advocacy of the Commission, through the words and images of America Burning, provided the catalyst for Public Law 93-498, the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974. In turn, that law led to the establishment of the  United States Fire Administration and the National Fire Academy.

America Burning provided a pathway for a federal role in overcoming the American indifference to fire protection and prevention.  It is safe to say that America Burning offered us all the highest moral motivations to make the United States a safer place to live and work.

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