Family Ignites Fight For Safer College Housing
Two years to the day after his daughter Kerry Fitzsimons and two of her roommates died in a fire in off-campus housing at Marist College, the pain Bobby Fitzsimons and his family feel is still raw.
As he spoke to the media at the Commack Fire Department’s headquarters Tuesday to announce federal legislation that would require colleges to notify dorm students whether their housing has sprinkler systems or not, he said just a few thank-yous before becoming choked up and stepping away from the microphone.
“Sorry guys, I can’t – I can’t,” he said.
Minutes later, Fitzsimons had regained his composure and described the feeling he has lived with since his daughter died – a pain in his chest that just won’t go away.
“A doctor told me I’m suffering from a broken heart,” he said.
His daughter and two other college students from Connecticut were killed Jan. 21, 2012 in an early-morning fire at their off-campus residence in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. But still, Fitzsimons and his family press on with their mission to raise awareness of fire safety issues on and off college campuses.
They launched the Kerry Rose Foundation in the months after Kerry died, which has since spearheaded national billboard campaigns across the United States. They have held a New Year’s Day polar bear plunge and a successful post-Thanksgiving 5K run to raise money to spread the message.
On Tuesday, Fitzsimons pushed through the feelings of the two-year anniversary of his daughter’s death to join Congressman Steve Israel (D-Huntington) in advocating for federal legislation that would require colleges to inform students whether their housing has fire sprinklers.
As much as it hurts, Fitzsimons said that his family feels an obligation to fight on – and keeping busy helps prevent them from dwelling on tragedy, he noted.
“We have to. You have to do that,” he said. “My wife, my other two daughters – we all feel the same way. Something positive has to come from this.”
Under Israel’s proposal, all colleges and universities that receive federal aid will be required to include a description of all fire safety systems on and off campus and notify students during the housing selection process whether the home they are choosing has sprinklers or not.
“When you make that selection, if you can choose between a dorm that has a sprinkler and a dorm that has no sprinkler, my bet is you’re going to choose the dorm with the sprinkler,” Israel said. “But you can’t make that choice if it’s the best-kept secret in town.”
The legislation will also direct the federal Department of Education to compile national data so they can figure out how many campuses have sprinklers in housing as part of federally mandated fire safety reports.
“We need that data compiled so we can develop a national strategy to keep America’s college students safe,” Israel said.
Israel’s law is based on New York Assemblyman Michael DenDekker’s Kerry Rose Sprinkler Notification Act, which requires public and private colleges in New York to provide written fire safety notification to each student living on or off campus.
“Keep in mind that when college students are getting their dorm assignments, they’re not choosing where they are going to live – the college will tell them they are assigned to. That’s why we felt it was so important,” DenDekker said.
Israel said that American fire departments responded to nearly 4,000 fires in dormitories, sorority and fraternity houses and barracks from 2007-2011. Sprinkler systems, he said, make a difference in protecting lives and belongings.
“When sprinklers are present in those facilities, lives are saved, and property damage is reduced by 65 percent,” Israel said. “When sprinklers are located in private homes, the risk of death is reduced by 80 percent. Sprinklers are simply common sense.”
While Israel said his end goal is to mandate sprinkler systems is his end goal, starting by requiring notification of their presence – or lack thereof – is a solid first step toward that goal.
“Those deaths may have been preventable had there been sprinklers in that house,” Israel said. “Even without sprinklers, they may have been preventable had [they] known there were no sprinklers.”