When most of us think about preventing death, injuries and property damage from house fires, we probably focus on having working, properly placed smoke detectors in our homes. Maybe we also recall the periodic reminders to change the batteries in those alarms whenever we reset our clocks for daylight savings or standard time.
Smoke alarms are certainly important. But their primary purpose is to warn occupants of a dangerous fire and hopefully provide enough time to escape the blaze. A better approach is to prevent the fire from becoming serious in the first place. This is where sprinkler systems can play an important role in preventing some of the 2500 deaths and more than 13,000 serious injuries from house fires in the U.S. each year.
Sprinklers are an example of automatic or “passive” protection. Like airbags in cars or fuses in electrical systems, sprinklers automatically detect and extinguish fires without requiring any action by the occupants. A compelling video comparing two model rooms, with and without sprinklers, shows just how quickly a small fire can become a deadly conflagration – and how effective sprinklers can be.
This technology has been available for many years, yet most homes do not have sprinklers. In fact, the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition estimates that just two percent of one- and two-family homes in the U.S. are sprinkler equipped.
So how can we get more sprinklers into U.S. homes? Two promising approaches – legislation and litigation – are described in a new issue brief sponsored by the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy, a partner in the Network’s Eastern Region. Many states have adopted laws requiring sprinkler systems in new commercial structures or multi-family residences (like apartment buildings). But these rules generally don’t cover one- and two-family homes. At the local level, more than 300 ordinances do cover new home construction. But some states have recently enacted preemption laws that forbid localities from mandating sprinklers.
Obviously, there’s still a long way to go before most Americans enjoy the benefits of sprinkler technology in their homes. Though we are unaware of any court decisions on the issue, one possible way to speed progress in sprinkler installation is through litigation against home builders who fail to offer buyers the option of installing these systems in new homes. Litigation against makers of potentially dangerous products has a long history of encouraging some manufacturers to make their products safer.
Meanwhile, additional research to better understand the public’s opinion about sprinklers and barriers to policy change might assist both advocates and policy-makers to promote this life-saving technology.
Public health professionals and advocates with questions about whether a sprinkler law exists in their jurisdiction or who are interested in legal technical assistance in devising policy change to improve residential fire safety should contact the Network.
This blog was written by Jon S. Vernick, J.D., M.P.H., associate professor and deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy who collaborates with the Network for Public Health Law’s Eastern Region, and Shannon Frattaroli, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor at The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and core faculty member of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy.
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