Burn Survivor Supports, Promotes Fire Protection for All
“Every day I come to work and think about the ‘What if?’—What if fire sprinklers were in place? What if there was a smoke detector installed? What if the exit was up-to-code in that building?”
Amy Acton’s thoughts are just a small portion of why she is being honored this year with the American Fire Sprinkler Association’s (AFSA) Fire Sprinkler Advocate of the Year award. The executive director of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors is not only an advocate for this community, fire prevention, and the installation of automatic fire sprinklers but is also a burn survivor herself.
“The life-long impact of burn injuries is staggering. I think I can speak for much of the burn community when I say that, as a survivor, I have a strong personal drive to help prevent burn injuries from happening to anyone else. Helping to build a community of support and amplifying our voices to make a difference instills a sense of meaning for many survivors. It gives purpose.”
A Survivor Early On Acton’s life was affected by a burn injury early in life. At age 18 while working a summer job before starting college, she suffered an electrical burn injury when the mast of a sailboat hit a high-tension wire. Acton’s co-worker was killed, and her injury left her in the hospital for two-and-a-half months.
“My accident was preventable, and since that time I have been focused, and even obsessed with, trying to understand why it happened,” comments Acton. “I eventually became a burn nurse and returned to work in the very same unit where I was treated.”
During Acton’s time as a burn nurse, she treated many patients who were burned in buildings that were not up-to-code.
“After seeing a continuous stream of patients coming into the burn unit with injuries that should have been preventable, I realized that there was a bigger issue at hand. Instead of treating burn injuries after they happened, what if we as a community could address the root cause of these accidents and prevent them from ever happening in the first place?”
In 1988, Acton was named the executive director of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Since joining the Phoenix Society, Acton and dedicated staff and volunteers have developed and expanded several national programs that have significantly increased access to long-term recovery resources for those in the burn community.
Founded by a Survivor for Survivors Founded in 1977, the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors is the leading national nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering anyone affected by a burn injury. The Phoenix Society was founded by Alan Breslau, who was extensively burned in the crash of a commercial airliner in 1963. Following a visit to a young boy in a burn center, Breslau realized the importance of peer support for those with burn injuries and was inspired to establish one of the first burn support organizations in the United States. After many years of working with burn survivors, he officially incorporated the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors in 1977.
Acton has helped to refine the organization’s mission and has built strong partnerships to expand the reach of the organization’s programs. She has also had a long-term passion for burn prevention and helped to build a thriving advocacy program to add the survivors’ voice to national burn prevention and quality care issues.
“Our ultimate vision is to unite the voice of the burn community around the globe and profoundly advance lifelong healing, optimal recovery, and burn prevention. We do this through engaging programs, focused advocacy work, annual survivor community events, fundraising efforts, and educational campaigns,” Acton comments. “Every year, we host the Phoenix World Burn Congress, which is the world’s largest gathering of the burn community. For many, the conference is the first chance to connect with others who are on a journey of recovery from a burn injury. The event is always extremely powerful, and it is wonderful to see new, long-lasting friendships and connections form.”
Phoenix Society has a variety of different programs throughout the country that assist burn survivors in every stage of recovery. The Phoenix SOAR (Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery) program provides peer support for burn survivors, ensuring no one recovers alone. The Society is developing an online community to offer education, connection, and resources to support survivors and family members all over the world. And throughout the year, the Society also provides community members with fundraising tools to help them encourage others to support Phoenix Society and raise awareness of the burn community’s needs.
“As we look toward tomorrow, our goal will always be to unite the burn survivor community and engage people across the world to help advance our message of fire prevention and protection,” Acton states. “Phoenix Society will continue to grow, unite survivors, and lift up the voice of the burn community. We will only continue to deepen our engagement in this powerful community and bring about positive change. By using the latest technology, Phoenix Society will continue to bring people together from all across the world to heal and to focus on advocacy work that will have a wide-reaching impact.”
Making a Difference In addition to their burn survivor advocacy and related projects, Acton, Society staff, and volunteers work on other fire-prevention efforts. The organization helped to pass fire-safe cigarette legislation and used survivors’ voices as a powerful advocacy tool. The lessons learned then assisted in the aftermath of the devastating Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island in 2003.
“Weeks after the incident, our team testified at a special hearing held by NFPA, and we shared our recommendations about what could be implemented to ensure something of this magnitude never happens again,” Acton notes. “We also touched on the long-term impact of burn injuries, and the decades-long recovery that many experience.
“I remember the raw emotion and frustration I felt when thinking about how something like the Station nightclub fire is still happening when we have the technology and ability to prevent it. All I could think was ‘Why?’ For me, personally, this was the day when I became a true champion for fire sprinklers being the go-to approach for putting out fires.”
The Society worked with its industry partners, and those in the fire sprinkler business, to expand Phoenix Society’s involvement in advocacy. Staff and volunteers were at the International Code Council (ICC) meeting to speak about, and vote in favor of, adding fire sprinklers to the International Residential Code (IRC) in both Minneapolis and Baltimore. “We were successful in adding the powerful survivor perspective to the life-safety teams, who work every day to make all of us safer,” Acton says.
Acton notes that they have remained involved in fire sprinkler advocacy all these years later and will continue the fight as they move forward. In addition to individual presentations, the Society has developed an advocacy training program that empowers burn survivors to unite behind one message and use their unique stories to bring about real change.
“Advocates take part in educational sessions at our annual Phoenix World Burn Congress and learn how to tell their stories with purpose,” Acton states. “Articles in our national Burn Support Magazine also educate both burn care professionals and survivors about why fire sprinklers are important. The survivor community understands the importance of fire safety and prevention. We will not back off.”
Phoenix Society has also run several social media campaigns during the annual Fire Prevention Week, with a strong focus on fire sprinklers, and has worked with NFPA to identify survivors and help them share their stories through the “Faces of Fire” video series and the Survivors Podcast.
“We will continue to help people understand that the survivor’s voice is a powerful advocacy tool and that survivors can be strong allies and team members in the fight for fire safety if they are properly prepared
Survivor voices such as Rob Feeney’s, who survived the Station nightclub fire, have made a difference. The Phoenix Society provided training for Feeney to be an advocate for the Society and fire sprinklers. He has made presentations to many different groups over the years. Feeney worked with Society and other fire-prevention organizations to advocate on behalf of the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act. He spoke to the Chattanooga, Tennessee City Council when they were considering a requirement to install fire sprinklers in night clubs. His powerful testimony about his experience and the death of his fiancé and two friends in The Station fire made such an impression that the measure passed by one vote—one member who was impacted by Feeney’s powerful testimony. Following the hearing, the Mayor of Chattanooga personally thanked Feeney for helping him protect the people in his city.
Making an Impact Within the Industry “Collaboration is, and always will be, a core value for Phoenix Society,” notes Acton. “Working with groups such as AFSA, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA), and many of the manufacturers, contractors, sprinkler fitters, and fire service members has helped us build safer communities for our children. We envision a world where those with burn scars can walk down the street and be welcomed and engaged, just like anyone else in the community. Our partners help us make that a reality.”
The Phoenix Society has been close partners with NFPA for over 20 years, and Acton serves as first vice president of the NFPA board of directors. She also serves on the board of directors for the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC) and has served on numerous American Burn Association (ABA) committees. In 2002, Acton was awarded the ABA Burn Prevention Award for her work promoting the survivor’s involvement in state-based, fire-safe cigarette legislation which was adopted in every state. In 2013, the ABA honored her again with its Curtis P. Artz Distinguished Service Award honoring her for her outstanding contributions in the burn care field. She also received West Michigan Women’s award for “Social Change Agent” and is a proud member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.
“As a new nurse, I attended ABA medical meetings and Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress, both of which have shaped my perspective on the community,” Acton says. “The highlight of my time in my current role has been bringing organizations closer together to serve the long-term needs of those with burn injuries.”
“In a world of quick fixes, I consider myself more of a long-game type of person,” Acton continues. “While we have made strides, we must continue to work together to create a world where it is unacceptable to build a home or business without fire sprinklers, just as we now would not buy a car without seatbelts and airbags.”
Personal Time In her free time, Acton loves spending time with her two children, and she also loves the great outdoors and cuddling up with a great book.
“My rock throughout my life has been my family,” Acton comments. “When I was burned in 1981, I was a teenager, and I could not have been more supported by each and every member of my family. At a young age, I realized it takes a team, and everyone around you brings something important to your individual success and healing journey. I am absolutely humbled and indebted to those who have been on my team throughout the years!”
Fire Sprinkler Advocate Award AFSA’s Fire Sprinkler Advocate of the Year award, was created to honor individuals not directly involved in the fire sprinkler industry whose efforts have had national impact in advancing life safety and property protection through the use of automatic sprinklers. Each year, AFSA’s Legislative Committee selects a recipient from a pool of nominations. Their nomination is approved by the AFSA Board of Directors. Darren Palmieri, residential category manager for Viking Corp., nominated Acton for the award.
“Amy has worked tirelessly for many years supporting burn survivors and advocating for burn prevention, including the expanded use of fire sprinklers,” states Palmieri. “I can’t think of a more deserving person to be honored with the 2019 Sprinkler Advocate of the Year Award.”
“We at AFSA are all very proud to be able to honor Amy with our Fire Sprinkler Advocate of the Year award,” comments AFSA Chairman of the Board Wayne Weisz, Cen-Cal Fire Systems, Lodi, California. “Her dedication to the industry and advocacy for residential fire sprinklers as well as her dedication to helping burn victims is nothing short of remarkable. She is a leader in our industry and a true hero to many burn survivors. Congratulations to her!”
“On behalf of all of us at AFSA, we are delighted to recognize Amy Acton for her long-term commitment to advocating for the installation and maintenance of fire sprinklers in order to save lives and protect property. From her own life-changing experience as a burn survivor to her ongoing work with the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, Amy exemplifies the qualities of a true leader by sharing her story and encouraging the expansion of burn recovery services and resources for burn survivors and their loved ones,” says AFSA President & CEO Debra N. McGuire, MBA, IOM, CAE. “Her service on a myriad of boards and committees, along with her willingness to speak out about the value of having fire sprinklers in both commercial and residential structures, provides a strong voice necessary to create greater awareness in support of our mission. We are grateful for her contributions.”
AFSA First Vice Chairman, At-Large Director, and Legislative Committee Chairman Ted Wills, Anchor Fire Protection, Perkiomenville, Pennsylvania is proud to recognize Acton. “It will be my distinct honor to present Amy Acton with the AFSA Fire Sprinkler Advocate of the Year award at AFSA38 in San Diego. Amy’s tireless efforts supporting fire sprinklers through her role as a board member at NFPA and the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition and as executive director of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors is proof of her belief in and dedication to home fire sprinklers.”
Lorraine Carli, Vice President, Outreach & Advocacy for NFPA and president of HFSC’s board of directors comments: “Amy is a credible, passionate advocate for home fire sprinklers. Not only does she personally understand the human impact of surviving a burn, she is a staunch promoter of fire and burn prevention as executive director of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, in her leadership position on the NFPA board of directors and in the many burn-and fire-safety organizations of which she is a part. Amy has been able to galvanize the entire burn community to champion greater fire safety through sprinklers.”
HFSC’s Peg Paul, 2014 recipient of the Advocate of the Year award concurs. “What I admire most about Amy is her passion, whether you are talking to her one-on-one or listening to her talk to a crowd. Her advocacy comes from her heart. She inspires so many people, especially from the burn community, who experience her passion and often follow her lead and become advocates.”
Acton will be presented with AFSA’s Fire Sprinkler Advocate of the Year award during the general session at AFSA38: Convention, Exhibition & Apprentice Competition on Thursday, October 3 at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego, California. To learn more about the schedule of events and register for AFSA38 visit http://www. firesprinkler.org/ AFSA38.
“I was shocked and humbled by this recognition,” comments Acton. “The work as an advocate in identifying, educating, and engaging the broader burn community members to promote a safer world has been a passion of mine. It is something I have been driven to do with other very passionate people in the fire safety community. It does not feel like work, but more of a calling. Advocacy is a true team sport!”
Inspiring Others to Action Acton notes that a steady impact has already been made on the fire problem in the United States, citing published numbers from NFPA: 5,712 fire deaths per year during 1981-1985 versus 3,082 fire deaths per year during 2012-2016. But she says the work is far from done.
“Our focus must broaden to the global problem of fire and burn injuries. According to the World Health Organization, in 2004, more than 11 million people worldwide were burned severely enough to require medical attention. If the burn survivor community doesn’t care enough to address this issue, then who will? That is why we do our work.”
Acton notes that it is an honor to work with passionate and authentic people and support a cause that makes the world a better and safer place. “I will remain an advocate for fire and burn safety and will carry forth the teachings of this community until the day I leave this Earth,” Acton emphasizes. “My focus is to build a robust and top-notch team that will take Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors to the next level and continue long into the future. I may not always be the executive director, but I will always cheer for, engage with, and advocate on behalf of the burn survivor community. Once a survivor, always a survivor!”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Society depends heavily on the support of those within and outside of the industry, both in monetary donations and in volunteering. Those who are interested in getting involved with Phoenix Society can visit phoenix-society.org/get-involved. To donate, visit phoenix-society.org/donate. Do you know someone who should be nominated for AFSA’s Fire Sprinkler Advocate of the Year award? If so, nominate them today! AFSA is proud to announce that nominations for this award and other association awards can be done online at http://www.firesprinkler.org/ awards. The deadline is March 31 annually for consideration.
Fire Sprinkler Advocate of the Year Award Recipients
- 1997 Dan Jones, Chapel Hill, NC Fire Chief
- 1998 John Vendetta, Hartford Fire Chief
- 1999 VJ Bella, Louisiana Fire Marshal
- 2000 Dennis Compton, Mesa, AZ Fire Marshal
- 2001 George Miller, National Fire Protection Association
- 2002 Jim Ford, Scottsdale, AZ Fire Department
- 2003 Gary Keith, National Fire Protection Association
- 2004 Jan Gratton, Fire & Life Safety Educator, Covina, California Fire Department
- 2005 Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA)
- 2006 Meri-K Appy, Home Safety Council
- 2007 Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI)
- 2008 Ron Hazelton, Home Improvement Expert
- 2009 Olin Greene, US Fire Administrator
- 2010 Jim Shannon, National Fire Protection Association
- 2011 Jeff Feid, State Farm Insurance
- 2012 Tonya Hoover, California State Fire Marshal
- 2013 William Barnard, Maryland State Fire Marshal
- 2014 Peg Paul, Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition
- 2015 Ed Van Walraven, Aspen, Colorado Fire Marshal
- 2016 Ed Altizer, Virginia State Fire Marshal
- 2017 Randy Miller, Camas, Washington Fire Marshal
- 2018 Richard Smith, Maryland State Firemen’s Association
- 2019 Amy Acton, Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: D’Arcy Montalvo is the editor of Sprinkler Age magazine and the public relations manager for the American Fire Sprinkler Association.