More than once Greer’s prose has been called prescient by readers, and “Engine 10″ is no exception. Those who read the novel know it depicts a Tea Party dystopia in 2016 in a city where the four remaining union firefighters resist draconian plans to destroy public service, including the fire department. At the same time, building codes are considered an impediment to business, and repealed.
In the Tennessee assembly, atavistic idiots, neither of whom live in a city, co-sponsored a bill to override all local Tennessee fire codes with a law that prohibits a sprinkler requirement for residential buildings with three or more occupancies. That means condos and townhouses and apartment buildings. One of these morons, state senator and businessman Mike Bell, graduated from community college, and the other, state representative Ryan Williams, a backwater Southern Baptist college graduate, claim their bill will overcome the competitive disadvantage Tennessee builders suffer from surrounding red states that don’t require sprinklers.
In other words, why can’t Tennessee be as stupid as those other states are? People in Tennessee have the equal right to live in fire traps as do people in Georgia, for instance, And Tennessee contractors should be able to build fire traps without a “competitive disadvantage.” And Williams should know. He’s a contractor.
You could say that the party of local control is a bunch of, if you’ll pardon the metaphor, flaming hypocrites because the sprinkler ban would usurp local control of fire codes. But, of course, the Tea Party counter-argument is that each individual has responsibility for fire safety, meaning each resident in a condo or apartment building is responsible for buying a smoke detector, an extinguisher, emergency light, turnout gear, SCBA, and for keeping a fast-attack inch and a half line connected to the kitchen faucet. The family in Brooklyn, New York, that lost seven kids last week had responsibility for their own home and failed to install a smoke detector anywhere but the basement where it would never be heard upstairs at night as the family slept, assuming it would be triggered by a first floor hotplate fire.
applied tea party idiocy
Of course, the big flaw in applied Tea Party pseudo-ideology ignores the reality that multiple family dwellings depend on mutual responsibility. A fire in one condo can and sometimes does burn other condos and will do so a lot faster than a fire in a detached single-family home. And if the fire doesn’t kill, the smoke will as it travels throughout the building. So sprinklers protect responsible apartment, condo, and townhouse residents from the irresponsible like the one in Memphis who left food on the stove or the gomer in Chattanooga who flipped a cigarette butt over the balcony railing. You can’t fix stupid, but you can install sprinklers.
Ideology is just a cover, though, for benighted self-interest, meaning blind greed by builders. Being pro-business has nothing to do with the bill. Being competitive has nothing to do with the bill. Tennessee could rake in the cash from buyers and renters by advertising safe buildings. “Why live in a Georgia fire trap when you can live in a safe Nashville condo? And your insurance rates will be lower.” No, the bill is another example in a long history of short-sighted greed at the expense of public safety. Slap up the condos, grab the profit, and run. After that, it’s not the builder’s problem. Hell, San Francisco did just fine without building codes or serious fire protection until the 1906 earthquake, but people have to learn to live with risk. And school construction was just fine until the Our Lady of Angels fire in 1958 that killed 92 kids and three nuns. Then the nanny state came along and imposed school fire safety codes on builders. At the urging of the private sector, of course, through the National Fire Protection Association.
you can’t fix stupid
The insurance industry, through the NFPA and Underwriters Laboratory, does appreciate building codes and has fought long and hard for safe construction, which is really the key to reduction in public emergency services and therefore lower taxes. Modern fire protection, as one Washington DC firefighter said, will become nothing more than a sponge and a squeegee in well-designed, well-built, well-protected buildings where the fire is out on arrival of the first due engine.
Ben Franklin started a fire department to keep his insurance company from going bankrupt, and Founding Father Franklin knew he had to depend on his neighbors to be equally concerned about fire prevention and rapid suppression, but Ben was never naive in assuming everyone would be responsible. The National Fire Protection Association continued that close private-public relationship between fire prevention and fire protection to keep insurance companies in business when they issued fire protection policies and to prevent life and property loss in public and private buildings. So, in spite of Tea Party rhetoric, business owners want strong building codes that are good for business. People who live in buildings do not want to burn or have all their possessions go up in smoke.
But you can’t fix stupid. Not in a Tennessee legislature led by two badly educated and irresponsible gomers with no sense of community and no grip on reality.
You can reach Senator Mike Bell at 615-741-1946
You can reach Representative Ryan Williams at 615-741-1875
Barry Roberts Greer, editor
author, Engine 10, Seven Two, Pipe Nozzle, Of Cowards and Firefighters