By Edward Babczak
In 1980, the Department of State experienced a large fire at Embassy Cairo that destroyed a warehouse. That same year, Embassy Moscow experienced several fires at their office building. Fortunately, these events did not lead to any loss of life. However, following these two fires, others were reported, which led to damages of $100,000 a month. The Department decided they needed to develop a solution.
A former deputy chief of mission in Riyadh had developed a friendship with a fire chief working for ARAMCO (a Saudi Arabian oil company) in Saudi Arabia named Dennis Lundstedt. Lundstedt was asked to transfer back to Washington to deal with the fire problem; more specifically, he was asked to join the Department to help establish the Office of Fire Protection, which would help provide a solution to mitigating fire emergencies overseas. Honoring the assignment, Lundstedt put together a team of six fire marshals and two Foreign Service officers—one being the state fire marshal of California. Together, they traveled to embassies and consulates worldwide to obtain a snapshot view of fire safety issues. This evolved into a program of fire marshals traveling to every facility, worldwide, on a three to four-year cycle evaluating the fire and life safety conditions at diplomatic posts overseas.
The conditions proved to be bigger than what the six fire marshals could handle. Subsequently, the program was expanded to include fire alarms, fire sprinkler technicians, and fire protection engineers. The technician team was led by Llyod Miller, a former Marine Gunnery Sergeant from Embassy Islamabad, who had experienced the 1979 attack when the embassy was overrun and burned. The engineering division was led by Gene Lindley, a former fire marshal for Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.
Through the years, the mission of the Office of Fire Protection continued to evolve with the advent of the capital construction program and the change in name of the Office of Foreign Building Operations to the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) in May 2001. The Office of Fire Protection (FIRE) was reestablished under the Operations Directorate of OBO.
Today, with three divisions—Fire Protection Analysis and Field Engineering (FPA) Division, Fire Protection Engineering (FPE) Division, and Fire Protection Systems and Engineering (FPS) Division—FIRE consists of33 fire protection professionals and four support specialists. They work diligently to prevent the loss of life, property, and operational capacity in U.S. diplomatic missions worldwide. Personnel represent the Department in professional fire protection organizations; participate in model fire protection code development, interpretation, and enforcement; and maintain a reference library of codes, standards, and fire protection methodologies for effective fire/life safety throughout the Department.
“There is no other fire protection entity in the federal service that is more versatile or competent in managing the severe fire risks associated with living and working in facilities that are normally substandard to U.S. fire code requirements or have features that tip the balance between life safety and security,” said Director for Fire Protection Ed Babczak. “Our team tackles these challenges every day with exceptional professionalism and outstanding results.”
The FPA Division now encompasses senior fire protection specialists responsible for conducting fire and life safety evaluations, fire prevention training, fire investigations, fire as a weapon analysis, and emergency management/disaster response oversight for the Department’s overseas missions. Additionally, the division evaluates local and contract fire services, and administers a logistics program to support all posts with essential fire and life safety equipment.
The FPS Division consists of certified fire alarm specialists, fire suppression specialists, and fire protection engineers that provide technical expertise and training in support of complex fire alarm detection and fire suppression systems and their interfaces within Department overseas buildings. These highly skilled professionals develop and manage fire system criteria, perform fire systems retrofit and upgrade installations, maintain existing systems, provide hands-on training for fire systems use, and are key in the final acceptance and commissioning of capital construction and renovation projects.
The FPE Division is staffed with professional engineers that review and contribute to the design development of fire protection features in all capital construction and renovation projects for the Department’s overseas missions. The division also develops and administers specifications and standards to ensure current fire protection and life safety features are effectively incorporated with other construction disciplines. The engineers also conduct progress inspections of all new construction and major renovation projects for compliance with approved designs, specifications, and the International Building Code. Engineers also play a part with final acceptance of projects prior to occupancy.
FIRE is involved with every aspect of the OBO mission and coordinates with every office within OBO—from the acquisition and leasing of new and existing buildings, planning and development of capital construction and major renovation projects to construction activities, operational safety, facilities maintenance, area management, and mission support. FIRE’s outreach programs also involve the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and every tenant agency assigned to the Department’s missions worldwide. As the authority having jurisdiction for all fire-related and life safety matters abroad, the office works closely with the Office of Safety, Health, and Environmental Management and with every facility manager overseas to ensure the fire protection program is a success.
FIRE is available to support all missions with their fire prevention programs. In recognition of Fire Prevention Week, commemorated on Oct. 3-Oct. 9, FIRE encourages all Department personnel to practice fire safety every day, and urges anyone who may experience a home or workplace fire to only attempt to extinguish a fire with an extinguisher once. If the fire does not go out, evacuate immediately. Property can always be rebuilt but a life can never be replaced.
Edward Babczak is director of the Office of Fire Protection in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations.