Grassroots Fire Prevention: Q&A California State Fire Marshal Tonya Hoover

Aug 19, 2013, 10:35 AM

file Chief Tonya Hoover

NewPublicHealth is partnering with Grassroots Change: Connecting for Better Health to share interviews, tools, and other resources on grassroots public health. The project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Group supports grassroots leaders as they build and sustain public health movements at the local, state and national levels.

In this excerpted Q&A, conducted by Grassroots Change, California State Fire Marshal Tonya Hoover shared her thoughts on a quiet but highly successful public health movement: fire sprinkler requirements as a cost-effective measure to reduce civilian deaths, injuries, and property damage while protecting fire fighters and the natural environment. Tonya Hoover is a 20-year veteran of the fire service and an experienced advocate for fire prevention. She has promoted residential fire sprinkler ordinances as a local fire marshal in California and a statewide requirement that went into effect on January 1, 2011.

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Grassroots Change: Tell us about the grassroots movement for residential fire sprinklers.

Tonya Hoover: California has seen the passage of residential sprinkler laws since the first local adoption in San Clemente in 1978. Since that time, over 160 local ordinances have passed [fire sprinkler requirements for all new construction, including 1- and 2-family homes].

Other states have also adopted residential sprinkler ordinances for many years. Residential sprinklers aren’t new. What is new is they’re getting their time in the sun with the public because we already sprinkler apartments and larger buildings. People are used to seeing sprinklers in commercial buildings and office spaces. Most apartments in California – the complexes that have been going up in the past 20-25 years – have sprinklers. We hope to get people to look up and say: “Why isn’t my house sprinklered? This is supposed to be my safe haven.”


The grassroots movement starts out locally, where local government looks to residential sprinklers to address a problem such as a construction issue or an overabundance of fire deaths. When you’re in local government, you want to bring in all the players, such as council members, builders, developers, and citizens, and start the conversation about the benefits of fire sprinklers. That comfort at the grassroots level makes it easier as you start moving up the food chain and show how you’re working through the problems at a statewide level as well.

GC: You’re describing a local education process that you have personally been involved in.

Hoover: Absolutely. In fact, every jurisdiction that has adopted some kind of residential sprinkler provision has had to go through some public education because when you require something in new construction, there’s a cost attached to that. You want to educate the public about that cost — that their money is being spent wisely.

GC: How did the local successes impact the ultimate adoption of the statewide requirement in California?

Hoover: Over 30 years, we’ve had 160 jurisdictions pass local ordinances. There were still pockets of the state that had never seen a residential sprinkler installed. But we pointed to the successes and say to those who have never seen one: “Here’s how to make it work.”

For builders and developers, residential sprinklers weren’t new. When it came time to look at the state level, we pulled all the players together and came to a consensus on how this would look statewide.

GC: What do you think the movement needs to succeed on a larger scale?

Hoover: We still need to talk about the importance of residential sprinklers. Our residential fire deaths are going down, but we still have them and most of those fire deaths are preventable. As a grassroots movement, we need to put more information in front of the public.

GC: Judging from your experience with residential fire sprinklers, what do you see as the benefits of grassroots moving building to public health in general? What lessons from this movement would you like to share with advocates working on other public health and safety issues?

Hoover: I’m an inclusive person so when I look at doing something that has a public health benefit, I want to ensure that I gather as many of the players together as possible. And I think if you’re doing grassroots, it’s scary to reach out to people who might tell you “no.” But you need to hear from them because that’s what gives you momentum. You need to listen to the negatives so that you know how to craft your message and make it stick. In the beginning I didn’t look at sprinklers as a public health initiative, but I do now.

GC: What’s your take away message about residential fire sprinkler movement?

Hoover: It can be done. It takes hard work, willingness to listen, patience, keeping your eye on ball, but we can succeed.

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