We know a lot about what works in public health. From the CDC, we know that there are six "winnable battles" that, together, could save thousands of lives. We know that effective policies like smokefree ordinances can protect the public and save lives, and safe communities and affordable fruits and vegetables encourage healthy eating and physical activity.
The tough question is: "How do we succeed in doing those things we already know will work?"
One answer is grassroots movement building. In her book Disease Prevention as Social Change, Connie Nathanson says "The strength of the American [system] lies in its citizens’ capacity for collective action."
In public health, grassroots movement building is "collective action" at its most effective. Wherever there are citizens who are passionate about improving the health of their communities, the potential exists to build a powerful movement for change.
One success story is the grassroots movement for local residential fire sprinklers ordinances. In a model movement that started in the late 1970's, fire chiefs and other advocates have passed more than 300 local ordinances across the U.S. requiring residential sprinklers in new single- and two-family homes. These laws have passed from San Clemente, California to Pleasant View, Tennessee. It's an example of grassroots democracy at its best.
About 3,000 Americans die in home fires every year and thousands more are injured. Home fires are the greatest cause of fire deaths and injuries, and children under five and older adults face the highest risk.
Residential fire sprinklers, similar to the systems required in hotels and apartment buildings, cut the risk of death by 80 percent and the cost of property damage by 71 percent. According to one study, the cost of sprinklering new homes averages just $1.61 per square foot.
Preempting a Movement
All this would be great news except for one thing: home building industry lobbyists in the state legislatures have undertaken a national campaign to preempt these life-saving local laws. So far, 13 states have passed "anti-fire sprinkler" laws that take away the power of local communities to adopt these life-saving requirements.
And the risk of preemption is even greater in 2011: So far, bills have been introduced in at least eight states to take away local authority to pass residential sprinkler laws. Arizona has already passed state preemption, in spite of the fact that Scottsdale passed a residential sprinkler ordinance in 1985 and is a national leader on the issue.
The grassroots fire prevention movement is supported by the Home Safety Council, NFPA, Common Voices, the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, fire chiefs and other members of the fire service. It's also a great example of a winnable battle spearheaded by local grassroots leaders, many of them in the fire service. Ultimate success will depend on the public health community standing with burn survivors and the fire service to vocally, and loudly, oppose state preemption.
This information was developed by Mark Pertschuk, project director of Preemption and Movement Building in Public Health, a project of the Public Health Law Center at William Mitchell College of Law.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.