Grassroots Efforts Help Promote Residential Fire Sprinklers, Save Lives

Jul 3, 2013, 10:39 AM

Approximately 362,100 residential fires left 2,555 civilians dead and another 13,275 injured in 2010, according to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). They also caused about $6.6 billion in property damage.

According to FEMA, automatic fire sprinklers are the “most effective fire loss prevention and reduction measure with respect to both life and property.” The numbers regarding just home fires are especially impressive: the risk of death drops 80 percent and the cost of property damage drops 71 percent, according to Preemption Watch. And when comparing simple costs to the lives saved, they’re without question cheap. Residential sprinkler systems cost only about $1.61 per square foot to install and typically help lower insurance costs.

When seen through the lens of public health, residential fire sprinklers are an inexpensive and easy tool to prevent injuries and save lives. They’re low in cost, quick to respond, small in size and require little work to install, which makes for a high return on investment.

The successful implementation of more than 300 local ordinances since the 1970’s demonstrates the power of grassroots movements in public health. And, in the reactions by many state governments, it helps illustrate the “preemptive” legislation that can hinder efforts to advance public health.

“When the federal or state government says to the states or local government that you cannot legislate on a particular issue, that’s just debilitating,” said Shannon Frattaroli, PhD, Associate Professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Center for Injury Research and Policy, in a recent Q&A with Grassroots Change. “We’ve had a recent experience with that in regard to residential fire sprinklers. While there was a major victory a couple years ago where the codes now do include residential sprinkler requirements in all new home builds, the response in several states was to pass preemption laws that prohibit local communities from passing ordinances that will allow them to follow the recommendations of the International Residential Code.”

Multiple states have legislation prohibiting local ordinances requiring sprinklers in new single- and two-family homes. Two more—Minnesota and South Dakota—introduced such legislation this year.

Such legislation “immediately quiets” local public health efforts and further demonstrates the need for powerful, sustained public health advocacy at the grassroots level.

“It’s an incredibly exciting facet of our field,” said Frattaroli. “We can look back on the history of public health and see how we’ve won tremendous victories through grassroots movement building, and as we look ahead to what public health is going to look like in the future, movement building and the grassroots has to be a part of that if we’re going to be effective on the policy front.”

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.