Grassroots Fire Prevention: An Interview with California State Fire Marshal Tonya Hoover

Flickr: Heather Paul

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. As state fire marshal, she views fire sprinkler requirements as a cost-effective measure to reduce civilian deaths, injuries, and property damage while protecting fire fighters and the natural environment.

Grassroots Change’s Mark Pertschuk spoke with Chief Hoover about this quiet but highly successful public health movement.

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

Chief Tonya Hoover

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.

TH: 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?

TH: 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: Beyond California, what do you see as the impact of the grassroots fire sprinkler movement on the national campaign?

TH: There are a lot of places where residential sprinklers aren’t a topic of conversation. We who believe in residential sprinklers have to be conscious of that. We can’t rely on the national [model] code. We have to go back to the grassroots level.

GC: This seems like an example of a truly nonpartisan grassroots movement, which brings together advocates with a wide range of backgrounds. Has that been the case?

TH: I think so. There will always be party lines, but I think this issue crosses over many lines. I’m a Republican. I believe in balance and I believe that we can do things differently. I don’t embed myself in a certain political view. I think you’ll find that issues cross over, especially when it comes to family health. Everyone wants to protect their families. Everyone wants to protect their loved ones.

It’s important to focus on the fact that residential fire sprinklers are about life safety for our citizens and the firefighters that respond to the emergencies.”
– Tonya Hoover

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

TH: 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?

TH: 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?

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

Benefits of Residential Fire Sprinklers
With a properly installed and maintained
system, residents can expect:
- 100% reduction in civilian fatalities
- 57% reduction in injuries
- 32% reduction in property losses
Houses with sprinklers and smoke alarms can receive: - 5-13% reduction in home fire insurance premiums
Installation costs in California: - From $1.00 – $1.61 per square foot
Source: California State Fire Marshal Tonya Hoover

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