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Analysis & Opinion
07.12.09 Alarming Fire
Comment by Andrei Zolotov-Jr.

On this national day of mourning we grieve for those who died in the horrible fire at a nightclub in the city of Perm on Friday night, where the death toll has reached 113 people and growing. Dozens of people remain in critical condition in hospitals around the country after fireworks triggered a fire that quickly engulfed the club decorated with dry bamboo. Many people died of burns, smoke intoxication and being crushed in the stampede while trying to get through the club’s single narrow exit.

We never know where and how we are going to meet death and, ideally, should always be prepared for it. But nonetheless, there are lessons that Russians could have drawn from this horrible fire – both individually and collectively. Because this day of mourning is also meant to make us stop and think.

Twenty years ago I happened to be an exchange student at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. I was 21 years old and had gone through the Soviet Army service and three years of school at the Moscow State University. I was put in a dorm with mainly freshmen and sophomores. About two weeks after the start of the academic year, I woke up in the middle of the night from the piercing sound of an alarm, flashing lamps and a stampede in the hallway. It was a fire drill. “Here we go,” I remember thinking back then. “They treat us like kids! I’ve had my share of drills in the Soviet Army; let these American kids run around at their American college. I turned over and decided, in a perfectly Russian way, to stand up to the system by staying in bed. But it didn’t work. Minutes later, my neighbors were banging on my door demanding that I get out. I was forced to oblige.

This attitude toward fire safety was one of my first major impressions of America. Other details then completed the picture of what seemed as a funny national obsession. Wide metal doors with green “exit” signs above them in all public places. Emergency back up lights. Suffice to recall American films for an image of the iron fire escapes outside buildings: they have become such an integral part of the urban American landscape that they no longer appear ugly. And anyone driving in the United States knows how much one would like to – and cannot – park near a fire hydrant. Not to mention the sprinklers and fire alarms that annoy Russians so much because they are often triggered by cigarette smoke.

I have heard that Americans take fire safety so seriously because wooden settlements on the frontier were often wiped out by fire. I don’t know if this is true. The seeming obsession with fire safety is characteristic of the United Kingdom, Australia and other countries in the Anglo-Saxon world. Other Western cultures are also much more attentive to this issue than Russians.

But something else is more important. Americans see following these rules as unpleasant but very necessary duty. The rules certainly get enforced, as is the case with a huge parking ticket one gets for blocking a fire hydrant. But people follow these rules not as much out of fear of punishment, but because that’s the way it ought to be. Because that’s responsible behavior. My American colleague, who lived in Moscow on the third floor, kept a rope ladder under her bed because there was no fire escape in her apartment. Nobody made her do that.

Of course, strict rules don’t save people from devastating fires. In 2003, 96 people died and 187 were wounded in a Station Club fire in Rhode Island, also started by fireworks. In 1990, 87 people were killed by a fire in the Happy Land Club in the Bronx. Yet in our country, people die in fires much more often than they do in the United States. The difference in attitudes toward fire safety is self-evident.

The fire drill at the American college was one of only two such drills in my life. The second one happened last month at our RIA Novosti office, and was ridiculed by my colleagues in the jaded way only journalists are capable of. I never got a rope ladder for my home, although my staircase has only one, narrow exit, and no fire escape is visible from the window. Several times in my life fire came very close to my children and me.

Why have I not learned anything? What is the reason behind this lax attitude toward fire safety in Russia? The answer could lie in semi-mythical Russian fatalism –if a fire breaks out, nothing will help. Or in the traditionally low value of a human life, which dates back to the time when we were a populous nation, which we no longer are. But the main reason seems to be that the very words “fire safety” sound as something bureaucratic that belongs to official vocabulary and is not related to our lives. These words exist for the “authorities” and not for us. For the fire inspectors who are willing to overlook a violation for a bribe. For the bosses, who have to report back about “fire safety measures” taken.

In the last couple of days the authorities have already made all the necessary statements regarding the measures that will be “strengthened” and the rules to be “tightened.” But I am afraid these measures will not lead to much, as long as they remain in the domain of the state authorities alone. During a poll conducted by the Echo of Moscow radio station on Sunday night, the listeners were asked who is responsible for the Perm tragedy. Seventy percent of the callers said that the fire inspectors are the ones responsible, and only thirty percent blamed the club owners. To most of the callers, the club owners are like children who are not responsible for much. The main responsibility is with the father-state, which has failed. Moreover, if so many people hadn’t died in the fire, we would have applauded the club’s management for “beating the system” and failing to succumb to the demands of some stupid fire inspectors.

I am not trying to say that the state should not deal with fire safety. But as long as it is just the state that is doing it – no matter how well or poorly – and as long as we are proud of dodging yet other “idiotic” rules, we will keep dying in fires.

I’d better go and buy a rope ladder, which, God willing, I’ll never need.
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