Fire Sprinkler Advocate of the Year Louisiana State Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning Goes the Extra Mile
Louisianans always like to give “lagniappe,” or a little extra, to friends, family, customers… whoever is the recipient of their business or generosity. This year’s Fire Sprinkler Advocate of the Year awardee is no different, always giving “a little extra” to communities in which he lives and to the people living in them. He was affected by fire early in life, which unknowingly set the stage for a lifelong career in the fire service and in community service. For his work and dedication to life safety, the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA) is honored to present its 2021 Fire Sprinkler Advocate of the Year award to Louisiana State Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning.
A Life in the Fire Service
When Browning was a young boy growing up in the community of Brownsfield, Louisiana, near Baton Rouge, he was badly burned on his legs in a home fire. “I remember my dad running me to my grandma’s house across the street and putting me in the tub and the volunteer fire department coming to put out the fire.”
The volunteers who responded to the fire stayed in Browning’s dad’s mind. He was so moved that he joined the fire department shortly after that and eventually became chief of that department.
“My dad has always been my greatest inspiration,” comments Browning. “He worked in the petrochemical industry but volunteered with the fire department from that day on.”
That dedication to the fire service continues today for Browning’s father, who still teaches fire and HAZMAT training even at the “young” age of 76. Browning remembers: “As a kid, I remember my mom and the other ladies in our community responding to fires during the day when men were at work. I was always hanging out at the fire station. As a teenager, I was allowed to sleep in the station if my grades were good. While in high school, I started teaching CPR/first aid and got my EMT certification when I was a senior and was even allowed to leave school to fight fires.”
Three days after he graduated high school, Browning went to work in East Baton Rouge Parish as a sheriff’s deputy. “It was the only job being offered in my interest of public safety at the time because the fire department in Brownsfield was still volunteer.”
Browning left law enforcement for the fire service in 1987 and later taught firefighting techniques as an adjunct professor at Louisiana State University (LSU) from 1987 to 1998. Browning also served as assistant fire chief for the District 6 Fire Department in Baton Rouge from 1987 to 1998, when he was promoted to fire chief. In 2001, he left to become the fire chief of Gonzales Fire Department. In 2008, Browning was appointed state fire marshal.
When appointed, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal stated: “Butch Browning has an incredible wealth of experience in firefighting, fire training, response, and emergency preparedness. Ensuring the safety of Louisiana children and families is a critical mission, and the state will benefit from his leadership, knowledge, and service.”
Educating the Public
Browning has developed and implemented several fire safety programs in the cities, parishes, and the state of Louisiana. “Effective
Fire Drills” is a program for fire safety in schools that provides students with realistic scenarios for evacuating burning buildings, and “Operation Save a Life” is a program that partners the Louisiana State Fire Marshal’s Office with local fire departments to install free 10-year Lithium battery smoke alarms in the homes of families that cannot afford them.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office also knows the value of educating the public through social media. Browning’s team is active on Twitter, tweeting and retweeting fire safety tips and sprinkler success stories. They post on Facebook during Home Fire Sprinkler Week and dispel sprinkler myths.
“One of our goals is to reach the public any way we can with the message that fire sprinklers, smoke detectors, and fire safety education can save lives,” comments Browning.
Involvement in the Industry
Browning is a four-time recipient of the Roy Robichaux Legislative Award. He was named the 1996 Louisiana Fireman of the Year by the American Legion and named District 6 Officer of the Year in 1988, 1989, 1991, and 1993. He is also an Eagle Scout. Browning’s office received the President’s Award in 2018 from the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM) for its Information Management System.
Browning is an active member of many state and national fire service organizations and has served in many officer positions, including past president of the Louisiana State Firemen’s Association, past president of the NASFM, and past president of the Louisiana Arson and Fire Prevention Association. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, he was bestowed the chief fire officer designation from the Commission on Professional Credentialing Chief Fire Officer, and he is a member of the Louisiana Fire Chief’s Association, International Association of Fire Chiefs, American Red Cross, and the National Fire Protection Association. Browning has also previously served on the Governor’s Arson Strike Force Committee.
Browning has received fire prevention training from the FEMA’s National Fire Academy in Maryland, LSU, and Oklahoma State University (OSU). He is a registered EMT, a certified accelerant detection handler, and a peer counselor. He has an Associate’s degree in fire science from LSU.
Keeping Louisianans Safe
Browning has led the reorganization of the State Fire Marshal’s Office to include cross-training of personnel, decentralizing the office to all areas of the state, and the development of a modern-day data management system. His motto is “We work every day to protect safety and economic development through building friendships and trust.”
“We’re unique in Louisiana—in a good way—in that, we have a single licensure/enforcement arm of the fire protection industry, which includes fire sprinklers. There’s not a different set of rules or expectations from city to city. This was done well before I got here, and it was done by the industries coming together,” Browning says. “We want the industry to be professional and we can assure that through licensure. We root out anything bad and make good things even better. The [fire sprinkler] industry crafted the laws we have. Second, to that, we have a board that ensures the training and certification are done to current national models. That is the best way to do this. It is truly apples to apples from company to company. A company can’t come in and use another method or standard. I’ve taken a stand that we’re going to continue that mission but adapt when needed.”
He continues: “I made a commitment to the fire sprinkler industry. Any change that’s suggested, they [the sprinkler industry professionals] will be at the table to discuss those changes. That bond has made us very successful. We should be partners in progress. If it weren’t for the fire sprinkler industry, we wouldn’t save the lives and prevent the fires that we do.”
AFSA Second Vice Chair Linda Biernacki, president of Fire Tech Systems in Shreveport, Louisiana, has seen that commitment. “In Louisiana, our industry is fortunate to have a State Fire Marshal’s Office that wants to work with business owners and hear opinions of the people with the ‘boots on the ground’ prior to creating regulations for the state. The communication pipeline is open-ended, meaning each group is always available to the other.”
Browning notes that “The State Fire Marshal’s Office doesn’t install sprinklers! It takes those industries and their training and professionalism to do that, and it only works if we have a successful business model. We’re going to make sure it works, and it’s fair to everybody. If you can create a one-stop-shop and manage it right, it’s the best thing in the world. I hear from other state counterparts that it’s a struggle when you have jurisdictions with different rules for each.”
Browning has shared his office’s method with other states and has had serious conversations with those state officials. “I see an opportunity to create a reciprocity or compact between states if I’m a contractor in Louisiana and I want to work in Texas, Arkansas, or Mississippi,” notes Browning. “We need to unify a set of requirements. I’d love to see more conversation to make it easier to allow these contractor companies to flex and surge up and help their neighbors, especially if a neighboring state has a disaster.”
Louisiana has seen its share of disasters—hurricanes, flooding, and recently COVID-19. “We learned several years ago with hurricanes that when we have mass disasters in the community, getting life-safety systems repaired and back in service is a huge task that can overwhelm in-state providers,” says Browning. “During disasters, we’ve always had a standard memo to put out to contractors that if you get overwhelmed, we will expedite licenses to get technicians out in the field.”
When COVID-19 hit the state, the State Fire Marshal’s Office issued a memo stating that inspections weren’t being suspended, despite lockdown and stay-at-home orders.
“We required businesses that were open to get any needed repairs and to have their fire protection systems in service,” notes Browning. “Our contractors were deemed ‘essential’ and went out in risky situations to make sure sprinklers were being tested, and repairs were being made. With the pandemic and not knowing how many first responders could be quarantined or out sick, an automatic alarm or fire sprinkler activation must work. It means life or death for occupants of that building.”
Browning says that issuing that requirement at the beginning of the pandemic was the key to success. “Our contractors needed that, too, to keep them in business. Some building owners and operators thought, ‘We don’t have to do that on lockdown.’ Well, yes, you do. The COVID-19 pandemic has been the longest state of emergency in the country, and we have to ensure these systems are protecting life and property.”
“Without fail at any and every opportunity, Chief Browning always articulates the importance of life safety systems and the use of fire sprinklers,” says Biernacki. “It is his belief, as is ours, that ‘fire sprinklers save lives.’ His continued support of fire safety, enlisting input for codes and procedures, AHJ attendance at training seminars and meetings, and being available to fight the fight when needed.”
Partners in Protection
Browning has worked hand-in-hand with the Louisiana Fire Sprinkler Association (LFSA) since he came into office. Biernacki has worked with Browning for years, including when she served as LFSA President. She notes his service is above and beyond all expectations: “He comes to our meetings, lets us use their training room, wants our input on industry regulations, and he has even cooked jambalaya for us several times! Connections are made, business is discussed… everything is better when we’re sitting around eating a delicious dish of home-cooked jambalaya,” Biernacki notes. “Butch also has his managers at our meetings to give updates and be available to our members when they have issues on jobs. It also lets the managers get to know the companies and their employees working in the state. Butch has got a great team, and a great team comes with a great leader.”
Louisiana is one of the states with laws prohibiting residential sprinklers, which passed years ago, before Browning’s time.
“There are lots of reasons why [sprinklers were prohibited], but I’m 100 percent for residential sprinklers,” he says. “Other interested parties weren’t ready then, and they still aren’t ready for residential sprinkler laws to pass. A lot of what we’re doing now is promoting the understan
ding of and education about sprinklers. The reality is people didn’t understand sprinklers back then due to a lot of myths.”
Since Browning has come into office, promoting home fire safety has been at the forefront.“We’ve always issued press releases on fire deaths, but after I came into office we thought it was important to report whether working smoke alarms were in the home at the time. In most cases, there wasn’t one if a death occurred. So then reporters asking about smoke alarms.”
Utilizing the same method with residential fire sprinklers helps generate public awareness about them and helps dispel the myths associated with them.
“Sending out a press release that mentions residential sprinklers were not installed starts the discussion. ‘Why have them in homes?’ they ask. We need to educate reporters and the public through as many avenues as possible,” Browning says.
In the last six or seven years, Browning’s office has built up the capacity to usher in the installation of residential sprinklers. “Louisiana has a statewide building code and a statewide residential code, so we’ve got work to do. But we’re going to get there. The acceptance and interest have turned around in the last seven years. Continuing side-by-side burn demonstrations and educating the public and elected officials will be the vehicles that get us there.”
The side-by-side demonstrations have been well attended and showcase the value of residential sprinklers. Demonstrations have been held at LFSA meetings and statewide events such as the Louisiana Life Safety & Security Association’s (LLSSA) 2019 convention in Kenner. Working in partnership, the State Fire Marshal’s Office and LFSA work to spread public awareness.
“Along with the training, partnering in side-by-side burn demonstrations, meeting collaborations, and special events are factors that each partner places in high regard for support, involvement, and representation,” says Biernacki. “Chief Browning’s commitment to advancing the use of residential sprinklers has been a constant message at every event, as well as promoting sprinklers at the Capitol on Legislative Awareness Day.”
Browning truly believes in “lasting change,” a phrase that has been in his bio since it was created. “Internally, lasting change is the culture of the fire marshal’s office—to create a culture that we’re efficient, accountable, and flexible. That we’re constantly changing and adapting,” Browning notes. “We cross-train, and we’re an agency that always helps when needed. In many cases, it’s not for a fire burning. We’re going to do everything we can to protect the public.”
He continues: “Externally, we’ve always got to be an advocate for fire safety, prevention, and codes and standards. The attitude is, ‘We’ve been here 20 years; why do we have to change the code?’ Well, we don’t have city blocks and towns burning down now because of codes, standards, construction requirements, and active and passive fire protection in buildings. Certainly, firefighters play a big role, but we know that fire suppression systems control modern-day fires until crews get there and gain total containment. If we don’t grow and build on what we’ve learned, shame on us. We can never forget what we’ve learned in fire safety, and we’ve got to improve it.”
“Lasting change is a daily function. It’s about building relationships, answering every call, giving understanding. Those will last long after I’m gone,” Browning summarizes.
A Well-Deserved Honor
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 a national impact in advancing life safety and property protection through the use of automatic sprinklers. Each year, members of AFSA’s Legislative Committee select a recipient from a pool of nominations. Their nomination is then approved by the AFSA Board of Directors.
“Working with Butch over the years has been a partnership of commitment, communication, and loyalty. We have built a relationship to ensure the continual growth of our industry and the safety of the citizens of Louisiana, both personally and professionally,” comments Biernacki.
I have had the privilege of knowing Butch Browning for many years,” says AFSA President Bob Caputo. “Butch is the consummate professional fire service leader and strong supporter of fire sprinklers. His tireless efforts on behalf of the people of Louisiana, along with his commonsense approach to problem-solving have made Butch an easy choice for recognition by our association as the Fire Sprinkler Advocate of the Year. I couldn’t imagine a more deserving individual, nor a more dedicated professional.”
“The great honor of the Legislative Committee is to award the Fire Sprinkler Advocate of the Year,” comments AFSA Legislative Committee Chair Stacey J. Fantauzzi, vice president, operations, North East Fire Protection Systems, Inc., Ballston, New York. “Each year we find another way that our community is impacted and improved by passionate professionals such as Butch Browning. We are excited to honor an individual who is a leader in his profession and a mentor to the next generation of code enforcement.”
“I am delighted and very pleased to learn that Louisiana State Fire Marshal Butch Browning has been chosen for the Fire Sprinkler Advocate of the Year Award. He is the perfect guy!” states V.J. Bella, former Louisiana State Fire Marshal. “Butch Browning has been involved in and promoted life safety and property protection since he was a kid. You couldn’t have selected a more deserving individual.”
Browning stays humble among all the accolades. “I’m so honored by this award,” comments Browning, “There’s got to be so many people than me who are more deserving.”
A Celebration as Big as Texas
Browning will be presented with AFSA’s Fire Sprinkler Advocate of the Year award during the general session at AFSA40: Convention, Exhibition & Apprentice Competition on September 20 at the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa near San Antonio, Texas. To learn more about and register for AFSA40, visit www.firesprinkler.org/AFSA40.
Fire Sprinkler Advocate of the Year Award Recipients
1997 Dan Jones, Chapel Hill, North Carolina Fire Chief
1998 John Vendetta, Hartford Fire Chief
1999 V.J. Bella, Louisiana State Fire Marshal
2000 Dennis Compton, Mesa, Arizona Fire Marshal
2001 George Miller, National Fire Protection Association
2002 Jim Ford, Scottsdale, Arizona 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, U.S. 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
2020 Brian Geraci, Maryland State Fire Marshal
2021 H. Butch Browning, Louisiana State Fire Marshal
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: D’Arcy Montalvo is the public relations coordinator and editor of Sprinkler Age magazine for AFSA.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Do you know someone who should be nominated for AFSA’s Fire Sprinkler Advocate of the Year award? AFSA is proud to recognize those individuals who have given extraordinary support to furthering the advancement and awareness of fire sprinklers. All three of AFSA’s annual awards—the Henry S. Parmelee Award, Fire Sprinkler Advocate of the Year Award, and Young Professional of the Year Award—accept nominations year-round at www.firesprinkler.org/awards.