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Grassroots Public Health: The Successful Movement for Residential Fire Sprinklers

May 22, 2013

Flickr: City of Marietta, GA
Flickr: City of Marietta, GA

Interview:  Shannon Frattaroli, Part 2

Shannon Frattaroli, PhD is Associate Professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Center for Injury Research and Policy.  She has conducted extensive research on the role of grassroots movements in public health.

In Part 2 of her two-part interview, Dr. Frattaroli shares her insights into the successful grassroots movement for residential fire sprinklers. (In Part 1, Dr. Frattaroli discussed the importance of grassroots movement building in public health)

Grassroots Change: One grassroots movement that you’ve studied is the residential fire sprinkler movement. What have you learned through that experience?

Shannon Frattaroli:  This is a fantastic, energetic grassroots movement that’s been going on for the past 30 or 40 years in this country. I’ve been interested in learning how this movement has taken shape and grown from the efforts of a few people in a few communities to hundreds of communities across the country. I’m interested in understanding what lessons can be learned and how we can apply those lessons to future public health challenges.

Preliminary lessons [include] the power of organizing and what a small, committed group of people can do to make their communities better for all. It shows the power of particular agencies that are not often thought of as companions in public health. The fire service is a great example of that. Their contribution to the residential fire sprinkler issue shows how much public health there is in the fire service. We’re recognizing that public health is something that has a lot of potential for partnerships outside of our traditional sphere.

GC: In 2009, you and some of your colleagues shared your findings on residential fire sprinklers at a meeting of the International Code Council. That seems to exemplify the goal of turning good research into good policies.  Tell us about that work.

SF: We were observers in that vote [to include residential fire sprinklers in the International Residential Code].  We used the opportunity to call attention within the injury prevention community and public health to the tremendous work that is going on within the fire service around residential sprinklers and residential fire prevention. That is an example of how we can learn from fields that have traditionally not been considered within public health.

JHSPH Faculty PortraitsGC: What are some factors or resources that enable a grassroots public health movement to thrive?

SF: First and foremost it’s the energy and commitment of individuals who make up the grassroots. A lot of times these efforts are started and maintained by the sheer force of people’s will and the commitment to make change, so that’s difficult to quantify. Secondarily, there’s an important technical expertise that can elevate a grassroots movement from a collection of people who want to do good to a collection of people who are organized, effective, and achieving real change.

What helps grassroots movement success is good leadership, an understanding of the policy process, and support from foundations or others who can provide financial or technical support so that the grassroots are able to play effectively in the policy arena.

GC: The Institute of Medicine has recommended that, in general, the public health field should avoid federal and state preemption. What are your thoughts about the impact of preemption on grassroots movement building?

SF: [Preemption has] largely been counterproductive to the goals of public health and it’s been particularly devastating to grassroots. When the federal or state government says to the states or local government that you cannot legislate on a particular issue, that’s just debilitating.

We’ve had a recent experience with that in regard to residential fire sprinklers. While there was a major victory a couple years ago where the codes now do include residential sprinkler requirements in all new home builds, the response in several states was to pass preemption laws that prohibit local communities from passing ordinances that will allow them to follow the recommendations of the International Residential Code.

That’s one example of how, through very swift action, a higher level of government can just take away the power and the voice of the grassroots. Those states haven’t yet recovered. I don’t know what those states are going to do in the long term with regard to that issue. When the state legislature in those states has said, “You cannot require that new homes in your communities have sprinklers,” it immediately quiets any activity at the local level. It’s absolutely devastating.

GC: What’s the take-away message for the public health community about the residential sprinkler movement and movement building in general?

SF: We need to embrace movement building and the grassroots. It’s an incredibly exciting facet of our field. We can look back on the history of public health and see how we’ve won tremendous victories through grassroots movement building, and as we look ahead to what public health is going to look like in the future, movement building and the grassroots has to be a part of that if we’re going to be effective on the policy front.