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Lessons Learned - Revisiting the Chicago Fire of 1871 and Fire Safety Awareness Month

Many of our employees know that October is Fire Safety Awareness Month because we posted it in our internal newsletter. I would like to revisit the topic for those outside of our organization and also share more details about the Chicago fires of 1871 and 1874.


The goal of Fire Prevention Month (and the week of October 4th – 10th) is to raise fire safety awareness, and help ensure your workplace, home and family has a plan and are ready for the unexpected. In 1922, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) named the second week of October "Fire Prevention Week" in commemoration of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. During this month, fire departments provide education to their communities, and encourage parents and loved ones to practice fire safety as part of their whole home safety plan. It’s easy to think that when it comes to house fires, it won’t happen to you. However, at a moment’s notice, you might find yourself facing a house fire. Unpreparedness can be deadly. It’s important that you and your family take the necessary steps to help protect yourselves. Be ready at home by installing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and having fire extinguishers checked and ready in critical areas of the home. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, rechargeable fire extinguishers must be recharged every 6 years, whereas disposable extinguishers must be replaced every 12 years.


In October 1871, dry weather and an abundance of wooden buildings, streets and sidewalks made Chicago vulnerable to fire. The Great Chicago Fire began on the night of October 8, in or around a barn located on the property of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary, on the city’s southwest side. Legend holds that the blaze started when the family’s cow knocked over a lighted oil lantern; however, Catherine O’Leary denied this charge, and the true cause of the fire has never been determined. What is known is that the fire quickly grew out of control and moved rapidly north and east toward the city center. The fire burned wildly throughout the following day, finally coming under control on October 10, when rain gave a needed boost to firefighting efforts. The Great Chicago fire left an estimated 300 people dead and 100,000 others homeless. With more than 17,000 structures destroyed and damages estimated at $200 million, the City of Chicago implemented strict codes for fire safety and building standards. Then everyone lived happily ever after. . . Wrong.

Three years later in 1874, a similar fire occurred called the "Second Great Fire of Chicago". Burning roughly 47 acres, 812 structures and killing 20 people. But how does this happen? Two days after the fire occurred, The Chicago Tribune published an article arguing that the lessons of the 1871 fire had not been learned, and calling for immediate reform regarding improved fire protection for the city. Ultimately, the second fire resulted in a complete overhaul and restructuring of the Chicago Fire Department and fire safety became a priority for both citizens and city officials alike.


The Chicago Fire of 1874 marked an important turning point in fire safety history and an important lesson for those living at that time. We must take action and heed past experiences so we can build a safer future learning from our past. Although these events occurred over 100 years ago, the message remains the same. Lessons learned must be studied and communicated.


Now, back to the present. Each of us have done or said something and then later, after reflecting on our actions thought, "How did I miss that?"


Unfortunately, many of us have heard these hindsight comments:


"That's the way I always did my PPE self-checks before."

"...before I realized I had been missing a step all along."


"I never imagined that a fire could get out of control that fast."

"I should have called 911 before trying to put it out on my own, I probably would still have a place to come home to."


"If I took that CPR course seriously, I probably could have helped."

"...and maybe, she would still be alive."


"If I had followed the work order instructions, I probably could have prevented that equipment damage."

“…and I would still have a job."


Have you heard the saying, "hindsight is 20/20?" As we reflect on what happened in the past, we are able to see things clearly that were not evident at the time. We must learn from our mistakes and by doing so, we can learn to identify issues, risks and hazards and provide protection against them in the future. Foresight may never be 20/20, but by considering the events of the past we ensure we mitigate risk and move forward with eyes wide open.

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