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Making It Rain To Keep College Students Safe 

Billboards like this are part of a campaign by Commack-based Kerry Rose Foundation to encourage college students to make sure their housing has a proper sprinkler installed. Kerry Rose Fitzsimons was killed in an off-campus housing fire last year.

When a devastating blaze took the life of his daughter, Kerry, Bobby Fitzsimons decided the fire in his heart, dedicated to continuing his daughter’s legacy, would never die.

Fitzsimons, of Commack, took a huge leap toward ensuring that commitment when a New York State fire prevention law was put into effect late last month.

Kerry Rose Fitzsimons was 21 years old when she died after a fire swept through the off-campus home she leased in upstate Poughkeepsie with six other students of Marist College. A senior at the time, Kerry was one of three fatalities in the January 2012 tragedy.

Bobby Fitzsimons said the Kerry Rose Fire Sprinkler Notification Act is the first of many steps toward ensuring that no other family endures the pain and heartache that comes with losing a child, especially in the circumstances of Kerry’s death.

Since 2000, according to Fitzsimons, there have been 162 fire-related fatalities of college students across the country due to poor or a complete lack of proper fire safety measures.

The new, state-wide legislation will require both public and private colleges to provide a written fire safety notification to each student living in a college-owned or -operated housing facility, both on and off campus. The notification will include a description of the fire safety system for the student’s housing facility, including “whether or not the housing facility is equipped with a fire sprinkler system.”

“Our kids are unprotected and people don’t realize it. Our goal is to bring awareness; it’s a big problem with our schools,” Fitzsimons said.

To enhance the Fitzsimonses’ efforts further, the Kerry Rose Foundation, established in the aspiring marine biologist’s memory, has launched the second year of a nation-wide billboard campaign to bring awareness toparents and students about the importance of fire safety.

According to Pat Dolan, president of Steamfitters Local 638, fire safety is often overlooked when parents and students pack up and move into college dormitories or off-campus college housing.

Dolan and Fitzsimons, a member of the Local 638 union, lobbied in Albany this past March during the New York State Pipe Trades Lobby day. The steamfitters, along with 600 other members, lobbied for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to put the bill into effect.

“The problem, unfortunately, is that nothing gets done unless a tragedy unfortunately happens. There was a common sense component to it [the bill]… This is a great starting point and I know we’re looking to expand on that,” Dolan said. “We wanted to get the message out there to help other families to make sure other families don’t go through the pain and suffering they [the Fitzsimonses] did when they lost Kerry. We want [parents] to make this fight when you go to a university and look at on- and off-campus housing that all things are done according to code. But the normal person isn’t looking out for that.”

Fire safety and sprinkler codes are set on both the state and county levels, Dolan said. Fitzsimons added that landlords often take advantage of young college students and their families by agreeing to let them live in a home that is improperly or unequipped to put out fires in a safe and effective manner, especially when residency is over capacity.

Fitzsimons said there was no sprinkler installed in the Poughkeepsie home Kerry was living in.

“It’s a double-edged sword for us. It’s very painful – we know something needs to be done – but at the same time, it just hurts so much to be doing this,” Fitzsimons said. “Kerry was a very special girl. She was dynamite… I just want people to realize there’s a problem and ask questions, and be aware the there is a problem.”

Fitzsimons said the new Kerry Rose legislation is a huge step in the right direction and the family will surely continue to effect change on the local, state and federal level.

“We’re not taking a break now by any means. We’re just trying to take a deep breath… It’s a tragedy that affects us every single day and no family should ever have to go through this again,” Fitzsimons said.

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