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Trust the Experts on Fire Safety

Trust the Experts on Fire Safety

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By Ronald J. Siarnicki

A day after the state House approved a bill that would repeal the law mandating residential fire sprinklers in new home construction, seven children died in a farmhouse in Perry County.

I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that the potential step backward in fire safety had any role in this tragedy. But I can assure you, from my almost 40 years in the fire service, if this bill becomes law, lives that could have been saved will be lost. Injuries that could have been prevented will occur.

The cost in real dollars and in pain and suffering would be a lot more than the cost of a residential sprinkler system. The victims will be the residents of the commonwealth and the firefighters who protect them.

How do I know this? All you have to do is look at a fire in a home in Montgomery County the very same day those seven children died. The fire was at dawn and began in a dryer. But it didn’t spread beyond the laundry room and send toxic smoke and high heat through the house. It was kept in check by a residential sprinkler. The Huntingdon Valley Fire Department arrived at the group home, not with a situation like Blain, with flames coming from multiple windows and many people trapped. Instead it was a minor incident with no harm to the residents or the firefighters.

I’ve also experienced firsthand the remarkable difference residential sprinklers can make. I served in Maryland as the chief of the Prince

George’s County Fire Department, one of the first jurisdictions in the country to have a residential sprinkler law. In the 18 years since the law went into effect, there has not been one fire death in a sprinklered single-family home in Prince George’s County. In the same time, there have been 195 deaths in nonsprinklered residences in the county.

History also will show you that the fire service is on the right side of this argument. We battled it out with the same groups in the 1970s. Because we won, thousands of people are still walking among us. Many of them right here in Pennsylvania. Yes, the very same arguments that were made against sprinklers were made against smoke alarms. Would you vote to repeal that requirement?

As consumers, we insist on upgraded safety features in our cars and trucks, our children’s bikes and baby furniture, and we are willing to pay more for them. Initially, many of the manufacturers fought these changes because they argued that consumers wouldn’t pay for them. But now these and many other features are standard. If it comes down to costs, isn’t your safety and that of your family a more worthwhile expense than upgraded kitchen cabinets, appliances and fixtures?

We ask you to trust the experts on this, as other leaders in your positions did 35 years ago. They left an enormous mark on fire safety in this country by listening to the people who protect us and by mandating smoke alarms. You can do the same. Your actions will ensure that in generations to come many fewer families will lose even one child to such a tragedy.

Ronald J. Siarnicki is executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation in Emmitsburg, Md. He is also the former fire chief of Prince George’s County and served as a volunteer firefighter in Monessen, Pa.

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Ryan J. Smith