“We’ve forgotten our lessons,” he told a recent meeting of the Marietta Rotary Club.
For example, the state Legislature passed a law two years ago that actually bans local governments from adopting building codes that require the installation of sprinkler systems in new homes.
“I understand that the market is tight,” he said. “But we have the technology to make you safer in your home than ever before and at a very low cost. Less than the cost of the carpet you’re going to put in it. And for the Legislature to prohibit local governments from acting is wrong.”
Marietta has had such a law since 1989, and as a result hundreds of homes are protected by sprinklers.
Sprinklers and fire alarms — not fire departments — are homeowners’ first line of defense against fire, he said. Especially when so many people have so much “stuff” in their homes, compared to earlier generations, and when so much of it so flammable.
“When your smoke alarm goes off, you have about three minutes and 30 seconds to get out,” he said. “When I was ‘youngster’ on a fire truck, you had 15 minutes. But the stuff you buy now is burning so fast we can’t do you any good. By the time someone calls 911, flashover has occurred and the fire is burning at 1,100 or 1,200 degrees. Not even a fireman in full gear can survive that.”
Another challenge firefighters face is the new technology used in homebuilding. Take “silent flooring” systems, for example.
“They’re great for contractors. They’re fantastic — until the house catches fire,” he said. “Then they fail at a rate that’s unbelievable. We have had so many firefighters killed and injured around the country because the floor systems collapsed under them without any warning. A flooring system is great until one piece of it fails.
“In those silent floor systems, those truss systems, it is the connections that fail. But look at the size of the lumber that they’re using. They aren’t using any more 2x10s or 2x12s. They’re all very small members.”
Gibbs is a native of Marietta and went to work for the department in 1977. He became fire marshal in 1987 and chief in 1999.
“I cut my teeth on a fire-code background,” he explained. “I was raised in a Baptist church, and those of us from a fire prevention background think we can save the whole world, just like the Baptists do.”
There were no fire deaths in Marietta last year.
“That says something about both the suppression forces and the prevention forces and our fire safety prevention efforts,” he said.
Marietta was finally upgraded to a Class Two ISO rating several years ago. It’s partly a reflection of the investment the city has made in the department’s personnel, training and equipment.
“Those dollars spent will come back to you in the form of lower insurance premiums, thanks to the higher ISO rating,” Gibbs said. “The better the rating, the lower the premium. So it is an investment by the community.”
Last year the department purchased a new ladder truck, a 100-foot tractor-drawn vehicle with a driver on both the front and back.
“We desperately needed it,” he said. “People ask why, and I tell them, ‘Narrow streets, that’s why.’ There are lots of small areas we have to be able to get in and out of. That ladder truck can get up next to a building and get a ladder up into it when we have a working fire in it. It’s extremely important not only to remove people, but as an escape route to remove firefighters if they should become trapped.”
Gibbs would like to replace the department’s fire engines every 12 years and its ladder trucks every 15, but hasn’t been able to afford to do so.
“Over half of our fleet is aging,” he said. “You put 100,000 miles on a 45,000-ton truck that runs emergency calls, and that’s a lot of wear and tear and complications.”
The MFD is handling around 10,000 service calls per year, which is actually down slightly from 12,500 back in 2006, the chief said. And it’s handling those calls with only six fire stations.
To put things in perspective, the city had just three firehouses in 1977, when it was averaging around 350-400 calls a year. A federal grant in 1978 paid for three additional stations, and that’s where things still stand.
There were 284 fires in the city last year. Gibbs speculates that part of the increase in service calls through the decades has been because the city’s population is aging.
“They call 911 when they’re in trouble,” he said. “And that’s the big reason for the increase in cost. We’ve entered the medical field in the fire service. Over half the personnel who roll out with us in the Marietta Fire Department are paramedics. That pretty much means every rig on a daily basis has at least 1 paramedic on it. They can really make a difference when the heart stops or you’ve stopped breathing or had a traumatic accident. So it’s very important that we continue in this training realm.”
And in the meantime, homeowners should focus on fire safety in their homes, keeping in mind how quickly a modern home can turn into an inferno.
“Practice your escape routes. Make sure your children and grandchild practice their escape routes,” he stressed. “If that alarm goes off, there is no time to be figuring out where the door is. Get out!”
Bill Kinney is associate editor of The Marietta Daily Journal.