The Economics of Life Safety

When it comes to life safety legislation, it often takes a tragedy to bring attention to threats. Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning is a prime example. A majority of states now have laws or regulations in place requiring CO detection in housing structures, including one- and two-family homes, dormitories, and/or apartment buildings. These installations represent a relatively high risk for severe CO poisoning since occupants spend much of their time asleep, while life safety devices to prevent CO poisoning are a relatively low cost to homeowners (most single station CO alarms cost from $20 to $40). At present, 41 states have laws or regulations requiring the installation of CO detection in housing structures. And almost every state has, at some point, had a constituent die in his or her home due to CO poisoning.

In contrast, far fewer states have laws that require CO detection in schools or restaurants (“buildings”). Over an extended period of time, occupants of these kinds of buildings spend far less time there than in the home so, all things being equal, an individual is far less likely to be exposed to CO in a building than in the home (assuming, of course, that in a given context the home and building in question are both fitted with a source of CO and/or an attached garage). This relatively low individual risk, weighed against the cost of installing a fully-connected CO detection system in a building, may help to explain why so few states have these laws. In addition, an argument might be made that commercial buildings have more rigorous routine maintenance procedures in place that might help to avert problems. However, over the last two years, CO incidents in schools and restaurants have garnered national attention. Slowly but surely, state legislatures and standards development organizations are recognizing that the public safety benefits of requiring CO detection in these building occupancy groups still outweigh the initial installed cost to building owners, just as they do in residential installations. For example, the 2015 edition of the International Building Code requires CO detection in all newly constructed schools.

In December 2012, a CO leak at an elementary school in Atlanta, Georgia, sent 43 children and six adults to the hospital for treatment. Almost one year later in a southern Utah elementary school, 30 people, including students and staff, were exposed to CO due to a gas leak. Both states proposed bills immediately following the incidents, though only the Utah bill passed. Massachusetts is the most recent state to have a near-tragedy within its borders when 44 students in the Town of Douglas were exposed to CO while participating in an educational program at the town hall. Again, legislators were quick to propose a bill requiring CO detection in schools, which is currently working its way through the legislature.

In February 2014, a restaurant manager in Long Island, New York, died, with another employee rushed to the hospital in critical condition, because of a CO leak emanating from the restaurant’s heating system. New York State saw two more near-tragedies when employees from two dining establishments were unknowingly exposed to CO in Staten Island and Carle Place on March 12 and May 30, respectively. Various bills requiring CO detection in restaurants were proposed in March, and the General Assembly has passed two versions, which require CO detection in New York City and New York State restaurants. As of the date of this posting, both bills are pending transmittal to the governor.

NEMA commends these legislatures for acting to meet a life safety need made apparent by recent events. Additionally, we recognize that a few states such as California, Maryland, Connecticut, and South Carolina already had life safety laws or regulations in place for schools without waiting for tragedy to first strike. Many of these bills, and those referenced earlier in this blog post, have found ways to mitigate the immediate impact on building owners, including deferred effective dates, grace periods that temporarily allow for installation of plug-in or battery-operated alarms, and restricted application to new or substantially re-modeled buildings. NEMA encourages state legislatures to rely on these and other means to be proactive in proposing and passing life safety legislation in education, commercial, and lodging buildings without imposing undue burdens on building owners.