Our view: The fire next time

What defines courage and commitment? Courage, often described as grace under pressure, is also known as the first virtue, the one that makes all other virtues possible. Commitment is something we witness nearly every day — if we have eyes to see it — by those lending a hand to someone who is not a family member or a friend, standing up for someone because they are part of the community.

One place to start to find those who marry courage with commitment might be to look at the people who run into burning buildings to save the lives of strangers.

The Shelter Island Fire Department held its annual installation dinner dance Friday evening at the Pridwin. It was a perfect setting to honor the department’s members, to bestow honors and install new chiefs. The community turned out to support them and offer thanks, including elected officials on the local, county and state level.

But our community can do more that just express gratitude. To help save the lives of residents and the firefighters on the front lines committed to protect them, elected officials and the community as a whole should begin to consider the creation of the post of fire marshal.
Some might say there already is one, in the person of Building  Inspector William Banks. But his role includes many more duties than monitoring, if businesses and residences are conforming with the fire code.

One duty of fire marshals is enforcing that code through inspections. With no oversight, firetraps wait for a piece of faulty wiring, a cigarette half extinguished or a grease fire to turn into a catastrophe. There are some businesses, from retail stores to restaurants, hotels and B&Bs all over this Island that are just waiting for a spark to go up like paint factories because they have not been brought up to code. Just look around sometime and you will find exits not marked; fire extinguishers and smoke alarms decades old; stairways and halls blocked with paper; books and old furniture dry as kindling piled high to the roof in attics and locked rooms.

It’s not just businesses that haven’t been looked at in years, but there are public buildings here that also need inspection and responsible guidance given to owners and caretakers on how to keep a structure safe and secure. A volunteer fire department can’t spend the manpower to do what a diligent, committed fire marshal can.

The other essential duty of a fire marshal is to investigate fires. This is not only to look for arsonists, but to systematically discover the cause of a fire, to sift — sometimes literally — through evidence to find out what touched it off. Discovering causes lead to prevention of future fires and the potential loss of life.

It’s hard to disagree with the need to take this route. But there’s just one bump in the road, one that blocks most everything these days: money.

According to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, the median annual wage of fire marshals is $52,000. The requirements for the job, according to the Labor Department, are a high school education and at least five years working in either a fire or police department.

But is it worth it to find funds to hire a professional to do this work? It would be a shame to be forced into an answer because someone lost their life.