Fire marshall details how businesses should reopen

Most people think of the Louisiana Fire Marshal's Office when it comes to fighting fires and rescuing burn victims from within an inferno, but Louisiana's Fire Marshal Butch Browning is today at the forefront of keeping COVID-19 from spreading like wildfire.  

Browning's office has always regulated how many people can cram into a space.  Why?  Because too many people have died over the years not from a burning building but from the stampede of panicked people trying to get out. Thus, the fire marshal measures the square footage of public businesses and determines "occupancy" rules for how many can safely visit that businesses.

"We do about 9,000 inspections a year that open up businesses across the state," Browning says, "so we know how to do it."

Now those same businesses need to know exactly how to do it in reopening without violating some statute or order.  That's why the governor's office and the fire marshal have instituted the website, http://opensafely.la.gov.

"We know how to apply the code in a very amicable and commonsense way," says Browning.  He has listed the code in layman's terms on opensafely.la.gov by answering the most frequently-asked questions, such as:
    • When can I partially or fully open?
    • What are the steps?
    • What are the changes for businesses that are already operating?
    • What new restrictions, if any?
    • Any new sanitation requirements?
    • Are masks, gloves, etc. required for my employees?

Browning says the guidelines are mostly just common sense.

"Remember this," he says, "we're talking about restaurants that people frequent, for instance.  Many of the people who frequent the restaurants that I'm aware of, they're like family to those restaurant owners.  They don't want to put their customers, their constituents, in harm's way.  They don't want people to get sick in their restaurant. What I find in a competitive world when everybody's open, is that they're working to outdo each other.  They're going to create stricter standards and develop a reputation for being clean."

Sunday in Colorado, that was not the case.  Owners of a Castle Rock café defied Colorado state orders and threw open their doors with no apparent regard for distancing, masks, or any CDC guidelines.  Authorities shut them down the next day.

At the Louisiana legislature, one lawmaker, Representative Blake Miguez, R-Erath, called "opensafely.la.org" a tattletale website because residents can post complaints of businesses who are not abiding by safety rules while others are.

"No, this is not a tattletale website," responded Browning.  "Look, on our main Fire Marshal's website, we accept complaints every day on building standards and other issues, things we should know about to keep people safe. There's no such thing as a tattletale website. This is about communicating with businesses so they can do the right thing."

Fire Marshal Browning has spent his whole life figuring out how to prevent fires, how to stop them quickly, and, in short, how to save lives.  

Nineteen years ago, while mobilizing firefighters to collect donations statewide, he spearheaded a small group of citizens who built and delivered "The Spirit of Louisiana" Fire Truck to New York in time for Christmas after 9-11.  Then Governor Mike Foster handed the keys to FDNY's first new firetruck to New York Governor George Pataki on The Today Show.  Since then, Browning has also elevated Louisiana another way by helping to unify safety codes statewide.

"I'm very proud," he says today, "that in the 50 states, we're close to Number one in the least amount of fire deaths in commercial buildings.  We just don't have the fire deaths that other states have and it's because we have a statewide fire code managed by the state."

Browning is confident Louisiana will survive.  He has fought fires, floods and hurricanes and, though the virus is an invisible menace, he thinks people have understood it.  To him, the last two months have proved again that Louisianans will always be resilient and cooperative to keep others safe.

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