I was intrigued last month when I attended the National Fire Protection Association convention in Boston and heard NFPA President Jim Shannon compare automobile airbags with residential fire sprinklers. It’s a great comparison and one that I had made myself this spring in a talk to plumbing engineers and in a column I wrote for PM Engineer, PM’s sister magazine.

Both devices make so much sense because they save lives. Yet they usually require legislative bodies to put them into a vehicle or building where they can perform the job they’re designed to do.

You see, I recently had the occasion to do a little research on automobile airbags. The occasion occurred very suddenly one night when a driver, who later was charged with DUI, blew through a stop sign and slammed her van into the driver’s side of my car.

Fortunately, my car was equipped with a driver’s side airbag, which deployed on impact. The airbag struck the side of my head hard enough to break the frame of my eyeglasses, but it did the job it was designed to do.

After an ambulance ride to the hospital, and a battery of tests conducted in the ER on my back, neck and head, I walked out of the emergency room late that night and caught a cab home. Feeling very lucky, I decided to find out who invented the airbag.

An industrial engineer named John W. Hetrick gets the credit. He used his experience in the U.S. Navy when he designed the first airbag in 1952.

He incorporated his work with compressed air from torpedoes into his airbag design. Interesting that his work on a weapons system led to his invention of a safety device, with which he intended to protect his family and other people who ride around in cars and trucks.

I discovered that Hetrick patented his airbag design in 1953. He worked with the big car companies at the time, but they didn’t install airbags in their vehicles until a couple decades later when the federal government made airbags mandatory.

While some may view this act of Congress as another example of government meddling in business, I’m personally thankful for mandatory airbags. I’m grateful to John W. Hetrick, too.

Last January, the 2009 International Residential Code made fire sprinklers mandatory in all one- and two-family new homes. The IRC already had mandated residential sprinklers in townhouses.

As effective as fire sprinklers have proven in nonresidential buildings, they can do more in homes where 80 percent of U.S. fire deaths occur. Eight people a day, on average, die in home fires. Automatic fire sprinklers can reduce fire damage by as much as 97 percent.

Despite these overwhelming statistics, special-interest groups opposed to residential sprinkler mandates continue to lobby legislators around the country. Even with the code change, state and local governmental bodies must act on it to make residential sprinklers mandatory in their jurisdictions.

In fact, what legislative bodies can do, they also can undo. At the NFPA meeting, I spoke with two fire service officials who were outraged that the Pennsylvania legislature passed a bill, later signed into law, which reverses the mandate on residential fire sprinklers.

One of them told me he wrote a letter to the state’s legislators to voice his support for sprinklers. We urge you to become an outspoken advocate for fire sprinklers as well. Legislators should see the wisdom of fire sprinklers before they get hit in the head with the realization - through a catastrophic fire in their jurisdiction.

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