The Man and City Combined to Reach Unimagined Heights of 'Buddyness'

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

“His (Cianci’s) place in the history of American mayors is there for us to look at and conclude that there is no question he changed his city from a wrong turn on the way to Boston to a Destination City.”
               -Tom Cochran, Executive Director, U.S. Conference of Mayors

I never had any dealings with Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, but I’ve spoken through the years with many who did. To a person, they all say roughly the same thing:
He was brilliant and driven, one of the smartest and best politicians they’d ever seen. He rightly deserved credit for the economic and cultural rebirth of Providence, Rhode Island. It was hard to work for him, or be accountable to him, but you always learned something when you were with him.  Unfortunately, you never knew when one of his inner demons would pop out to torment you and/or create a spectacle.

We were once engaged in a project in Massachusetts with a man who’d run the Providence Civic Center (now the Dunkin Donuts Center) for a spell when Cianci was mayor.
“Buddy was a wild man, a total wild man,” the man told us.  “He’d think nothing of calling you at 1:00 a.m. to ask a question about some nothing issue.  But he was a genius.  He could see things in government that other people never could.  He’d make a victory out of something everyone had missed but him.”

This man explained that he’d been hired by the center’s board of directors and reported directly to the board.
“That didn’t matter to Buddy,” he said.  “From the beginning, he made it clear I worked for him, and that, if I wanted to keep my job, I would do what he told me. Period. End of story.  That’s how it was for everyone in Providence.”

Cianci died this past Thursday, Jan. 28, at the age of 74.  Up until a few days before his death, he was still going, fairly strong, as a radio talk show host in Rhode Island.
Of all the things I’ve read about the man since his passing, nothing is as good and as worthy of recommendation as Matt Taibbi’s piece yesterday in Rolling Stone, “One Crazy Hour With Buddy Cianci.”  This is a highly entertaining account of the time in September, 2013, when Taibbi was a guest on Cianci’s radio show together with Stephen Day, former head of the Providence firefighters union.

Here’s a sample from “One Crazy Hour,” told in Cianci’s voice to Taibbi during a commercial break:
“This one time, we’re signing a collective bargaining agreement.  There’s cameras everywhere and when I’m done signing the paper, all of a sudden all of these firefighters are slapping me on the back and shaking my hand.  And I’m panicking.  Why are they so happy?  I lean over and I say, ‘Stephen, what the fuck did I just sign?’ ”

That Taibbi is the author of this piece provided a needed hook (excuse) to write this post: he grew up around Boston and graduated from Concord Academy.  His father, Mike Taibbi, was an outstanding TV reporter in Boston before going on to a distinguished national career at NBC news.
To get Matt’s entire article, click on:

Tobacco Settlement Perennially Validates the Wisdom of General Harshbarger

Friday, January 29, 2016

Back in the early-Nineties, 46 attorneys general brought a massive lawsuit against the largest U.S. tobacco companies to recover costs incurred by states in caring for persons afflicted with smoking-related illnesses over a period of many decades.  We the taxpayers are fortunate they did. 

Under the terms of the 1998 “Master Settlement Agreement” of that suit, the states collectively have since received in excess of two hundred billion dollars: $200,000,000,000!
That money continues to flow at astonishing levels:  during the current fiscal year, the states will derive approximately $7 billion from the settlement.  Massachusetts alone will get over $200 million. 

What continues to astonish, as well, is the harm caused by tobacco: smoking will kill more than 480,000 Americans and smoking-related illnesses will necessitate health care spending of approximately $170 billion this year.  
In Massachusetts, 16.6% of adults still indulge in the nicotine habit.  That number ties us with New York as the states with the 11th lowest smoking rate in the U.S.  Utah has the lowest rate, 10.3%, and Kentucky the highest, 26.5%

Here’s something we chin-rubbers of the political persuasion seldom consider: the debt all Massachusetts taxpayers owe to Scott Harshbarger, our attorney general from 1991 through 1998.
Harshbarger was in the coterie of attorneys general who conceived of and organized the suit versus the tobacco companies and helped to turn the case into a juggernaut by bringing so many other AGs on board.    

As discussed in a previous post, we at Preti Strategies once had a client, Dr. Robert Berger, who wanted to use a relatively small portion of the state’s tobacco settlement dollars, one time only, on a clinical trial of the effectiveness of lung volume reduction surgery.  See:

That proposal failed due mainly to the opposition of those wanting to spend the lion’s share of those dollars on smoking prevention and cessation programs.  We had no choice but to drop the idea and move on.  
The overall debate on how best to use the settlement in Massachusetts, however, has never ended.

One on side have been the governor and a majority of legislators, who each year have favored putting most of the money in the state’s general fund, where it can help defray the enormous and ever-growing costs of running the Medicaid program. 
On the other side have been the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Tobacco Free Kids organization, and an assortment of well-grounded, passionate health advocacy groups, who want tens of millions taken from the settlement every year and spent directly on smoking prevention and cessation.

The CDC says Massachusetts should be spending roughly $67 million a year on prevention/cessation.  Advocates use the CDC number as a rallying point every budget season (February through June) on Beacon Hill.
In the current state budget, $3.9 million is set aside for prevention/cessation, only 5.8% of what the CDC says is required to protect the citizens of Massachusetts, especially children, from cigarettes and other tobacco products.

Over the years, Massachusetts has spent as much as $50 million on prevention/cessation (FY 2001) and as little as $2.5 million (FY 2004).
When Governor Charlie Baker filed his proposed FY 17 state budget this week, he level funded prevention/cessation at $3,866,096.  Neither the House nor the Senate, I predict, will change that figure much when they take their turns at bat in the budget formation contest.

Here’s a concluding bit of relevant data:  in Gov. Baker’s FY 17 budget, total spending on MassHealth, the name we give to Medicaid hereabouts, is pegged at $15.4 billion, which is nearly 40% --and by far the largest single spending category -- of his $39.6 billion budget



It Proved Impossible to Do What the Doctor Ordered...and that Still Hurts

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

I can remember the morning but not the year – it was around 1999 or 2000 -- when my boss, Al Minahan, and I drove from downtown to Brookline to meet a prospective client.  We had an appointment with a recently retired surgeon at his home. 

His house was on a quiet side street just beyond the Brookline Reservoir, to the left of Boylston Street (Route 9) as you’re leaving the city, and up a hill. The neighborhood had been built on or near what had once been the Lowell Estate. 
Dr. Robert Berger answered the bell and ushered us in. 

He seemed a little hesitant or distracted.  Maybe he didn’t like the look of us, I thought, or was having second thoughts about hiring a lobbyist.  We’d been referred to Dr. Berger by a friend and fellow lobbyist, a gentleman who could not accept Dr. Berger’s assignment because the goal conflicted with the interests of an existing client.

The three of us were soon in Dr. Berger’s first-floor den, where the doctor began searching the shelves and a closet for a videocassette.  The subject of the video was lung volume reduction surgery (LVRS), an option used by some surgeons to treat patients with chronic obstructive lung disease, many of whom have advanced emphysema caused by years of smoking.  In LVRS, a surgeon removes the most diseased parts of a patient’s lungs in order to give the less-diseased parts more room to work in.  Post-surgery, the patient is supposed to have less shortness of breath, more comfort, less pain.
Dr. Berger was going to decide if we were the ones who could help him secure state-controlled funds for a randomized clinical trial on the effectiveness and optimal application of LVRS.  The project was formally known as the Overholt Blue Cross Emphysema Surgery Trial, OBEST for short.  It had been designed to yield useful results in as little as six months. 

Dr. Berger was the OBEST project director when he came up with the idea of funding OBEST via a one-time allotment from the continuous, multi-million-dollar revenue stream flowing to Massachusetts under the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement of the lawsuit against the major U.S. tobacco companies by Massachusetts and 45 other states.  He believed that somewhere between two and three million dollars could do the job. [NOTE: Here's an example of how much money still comes to Massachusetts through this agreement: In 2014 alone, the Commonwealth received $282 million from the tobacco companies.]
We watched the video, which lasted maybe 10 or 12 minutes.  Dr. Berger asked some questions and so did we.  We chatted about our work, our contacts on Beacon Hill and our normal fees. Then we parted company without coming to an agreement on his hiring us, although it seemed he was leaning in that direction.

In a previous position, I had worked with physicians and surgeons for nearly 15 years.  I remember thinking that Dr. Berger lacked the hard edge and driven personality I’d come to associate with most doctors.  I wondered if what I perceived as hesitancy or tentativeness was not a sign of fatigue or even disillusionment.
Later, I realized how wrong I was.  I saw that Dr. Berger did not have to summon much energy or attention to take the measure of a person or situation.  He was kind of on cruise control the day we met.

Within a week, we were hired and began setting up a series of meetings with legislators and policy makers in the state health care bureaucracy.  We also arranged meetings with folks from the American Cancer Society and what was then the Coalition for a Healthy Future and has since become Tobacco Free Massachusetts.
Dr. Berger came to all of those meetings and never failed to make a good impression.  It turned out that he had ample reserves of charm and wit, which he could call upon at will.  Making the case for OBEST, he always got to the point and hammered it home passionately.  You never had to pull him back from a meandering digression.  He liked putting his charisma to the test.

As we made the rounds, and as we had coffee and lunches with him between appointments, some details of Dr. Berger’s highly unusual and remarkable life would come out. 
He had been born in Hungary in 1929.  When World War II began, his family was caught up in the Holocaust.  Barely in his teens, he had to flee to Budapest, where he lived in the shadows with other displaced and hunted Jewish boys.  One day, in a near-fatal encounter with a Nazi soldier, he was clubbed in the forehead with a rifle butt, but managed to run away.

Dr. Berger survived the war and lived afterwards in camps for displaced persons administered by the allied powers.  In 1947, he was resettled in New York City, and then in Boston, under the auspices of Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS).
When he arrived in Boston, Dr. Berger spoke no English and had the equivalent of a seventh grade education.  Within a year, he had earned enough credits to graduate from Boston Latin, and had gained admission to Harvard College.  After Harvard, he attended and graduated from Boston University School of Medicine. He received training in internal medicine, general surgery and cardiothoracic surgery.

Dr. Berger became a surgeon and ascended rather swiftly to the top tier of the profession.  The positions he held included: director of cardiothoracic surgery at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Boston City and University Hospitals, and professor of surgery at Boston University School of Medicine.  The first surgical team to perform heart bypass surgery in Boston had Dr. Berger as its chief.
Dr. Berger was the kind of surgeon who’d be paged at Symphony Hall on a Friday night and be driven by police at breakneck speeds to City Hospital, where a gunshot victim, inches from death, badly needed his services.

Most of the above information was not conveyed to me by Dr. Berger but rather came to light through my own research.  I’d be intrigued by something he’d say in passing, like how he’d gone to Israel during the 1967 war to make his skills available to the wounded and would be willing to go back in the event of another war, where “I would treat anybody who was hurt, any Palestinian as well as any Israeli,” and I’d go back to the office and search the Internet for information on him and his accomplishments. Then I’d ask him questions later about what I’d learned.  He really did not like talking about himself; the good stuff I had to pull out of him.
Three or four months in, it was becoming apparent there was no appetite in Massachusetts for funding OBEST from the tobacco settlement.  No one liked the possible precedent it would set.  No matter who we met with, that person would basically tell us:

“These patients have been harmed by smoking and you make a good argument that tobacco company money should be used to help them, but where do you stop?  How do you refuse the next group that steps up and asks for money from this pool?  The Master Settlement Agreement is supposed to be reimbursing the state for the cost of caring for Medicaid patients harmed by smoking and paying for smoking prevention.  It makes no provisions for clinical trials, no matter how good they may be or how much they may be needed.”
Our interlocutors had a strong conviction that Massachusetts should use its Master Settlement Agreement money only for anti-smoking advertising campaigns and smoking cessation programs.

When a proposal fails to gain traction, when a cause that once gave you hope turns gloomy, it is hard to acknowledge that fact.  It’s hard to say you cannot win when you’ve been hired and paid to earn a victory.  It is especially hard when you’ve been hired by someone like Dr. Berger and you’ve come to realize he is one of the finest human beings you’ve ever met, and that the project in question could have been a fitting coda to a glorious career in medicine.   But acknowledge it you must, as soon as you see the outlines of a loss emerging.  You have to give clients the bad news as quickly as you give them the good.
During that last conversation with Dr. Berger, he was quite disappointed, and reluctant to accept that the mission was over.  He showed his disappointment the most, I think, in how he grew distant.  He was polite but the change in his voice, the perceptible cooling of his customary warmth, made it plain that he felt let down.

On Tuesday, January 5, I opened The Boston Globe  to find that Dr. Berger had died on New Year ’s Day of complications from a heart attack.  He was 86 years old.  The disappointment of the OBEST assignment sprang to mind but was quickly subsumed in the gratitude I felt, and will always feel, for having once known a man as strong, a healer as skilled, a humanitarian as large as Bob Berger. 

NEXT: A look at the Master Settlement Agreement, 18 years later, and how Massachusetts has utilized this multi-million-dollar, constantly replenished resource.



Say What? The Job of a Legislator 'Isn't Worth Doing Any More' ?

Thursday, December 31, 2015

I pay attention to Peter Lucas, who writes on politics for the Lowell Sun.  I seldom disagree with what he says and I never dismiss out of hand anything he says about Massachusetts politics.

So, when he did a column the week before Christmas on why so many persons leave the legislature in the middle of their terms, I lapped it up.  Lucas has been around forever, and, like I said, he really knows his stuff.

"...over the past five years," he wrote, "the upper branch of the legislature has seen at least five senior members, all Democrats, leave, taking with them years of invaluable experience that went out of the Senate chamber with them," ["Climate change spurs Senate's brain drain," 12-22-15].  I recommend you read the entire column by going to:

Lucas cited East Boston Senator Anthony Petrucelli as the latest example of this trend.  Petrucelli's resigning to join the lobbying firm headed by Dennis Kearney: Kearney, Donovan & McGee.  Dennis himself got his start in public life many years ago as a rep from East Boston.

The basic reason so many legislators have quit in recent years, said Lucas, is "the job is not worth doing any more because the business has changed."

Developing this theme, he quoted one unidentified "veteran senator," who said, "You can't help people anymore, which is why I ran for the job in the first place.  Sure, we still vote on a budget and on social programs, but they've made it a crime to help people, to help a constituent get a job, or get a kid into a state college."

A little further down in the column, Lucas quoted "one veteran legislator," who said, "We run for office and get elected to help people.  But now helping people has become a crime.  You can't write a letter for anybody anymore, you can't even make a phone call.  Everything is now recorded and designed to come back and bite you."

Then he quoted "another ranking legislator," who said, "Everybody is afraid to do anything."

At the very end of the column, he quoted "one veteran legislator," who said, "Who needs it?"

Yeah.  I guess.

In this post-Ware-Report/post-convicted-Probation-Commissioner world, who needs a seat in the Massachusetts legislature if it comes with a permanent de facto prohibition on helping a constituent land a job on a public payroll or a friend's kid gain admittance to a public university?

With patronage and doing favors supposedly gone the way of the Walkman, I thought legislators might want to turn their attention to more meaningful and rewarding activities.

If you accept the premise of "Climate change," no, they'd rather walk away from the State House than spend their newly-freed-up hours doing what's on the official job description: lawmaking.

Here's a topic I'd like to see Lucas, et al. at the indispensable Sun explore: Is enough actual lawmaking taking place these days to hold the interest of the sharpest legislators over the long haul?

Murphy Don't Need No Stinkin' Badges When He Goes to the Convention

Friday, December 18, 2015

When I read an account yesterday morning of Boston City Councilor Stephen J. Murphy’s farewell speech it brought back the time in Springfield when Murphy and I went eyeball to eyeball and I blinked.

Saturday, June 1, 2001.  I was serving as a volunteer gatekeeper at the Democratic Party Issues Convention at the Springfield Civic Center.  A friend from Melrose, the one who’d asked me to volunteer, said it would provide opportunities to interact with party big shots and become better known.  I was into lobbying a little over three years at that point.
Around 8:00 o’clock that morning, I showed up at the appointed place in the civic center.  Along with about 15 other volunteers, I was given a big name badge on a lanyard to hang around my neck, a walkie-talkie and some cursory instructions. 

“You have to check the credentials of everyone – everyone -- who wants to come into the hall,” we were told.  “If they don’t have a name badge, they can’t come in.  No badge. No entry.  No exceptions.”  Our leader-instructor, also a volunteer, added, “Any problems, call headquarters.”
For most of the day, everything went smoothly.  Occasionally, I’d see somebody I knew and have a good chat.  Mainly it was boring.  And hard on the feet.  Interaction with big shots consisted of my hailing them enthusiastically by name and/or title (“Hello, Mr. President!”) and their barely nodding as they moved past me. 

Near the end of the day, as I was counting the minutes till I could pack it in and go home, a tall, large man approached my station, accompanied by at least two other, averaged-sized men.  Not one of them was wearing a Democratic Party Issues Convention name badge.  I had no idea who that mountain of a man might be.  The big guy noticed me eyeing him but did not break stride or speak to me.  I moved a step to my left to block their path.
To the big guy, I said, “Sir, you can’t go in without a badge.  If you have one, please let me see it.”

He was at least six inches taller than I and considerably broader abeam.
He looked sideways at one of the guys he was with and laughed.

“I’m Boston City Councilor Steve Murphy,” he announced.
As if on cue, Murphy & Co. immediately marched to the door of the convention floor.

I didn’t know what to do.  I had my radio in hand but had forgotten the instructions on how to operate the damn thing.  And what would I have said to “headquarters” if I had remembered how to use it?
“Help! I was just steamrollered by a large man claiming to be a Boston councilman.  He’s roaming the hall now with his buddies.  None are wearing badges. Repeat, none.  Quick!  Do something.”

How ridiculous would that have sounded?
I looked around.  No one in that crowded corridor seemed to have noticed what had happened between me and Murphy.  No other volunteer was in sight who might have also tried to halt him.  In less than 20 seconds, the badgeless wonders disappeared into the hall.  I imagined them in some choice seats, having a good laugh at my expense.  “Did you see the look at that guy’s face when we blew past him? Awesome move, Stevie.”

One’s moments of humiliation are never deep in the storage chests of memory.  Rather, they hover just below the surface.  They burst into the open whenever they will and taunt us.  And so have I been bothered from time to time by the way Murphy made short work of me on June 1, 2001.
The voters roughed up Stephen J. Murphy pretty good in November.  He is not a bad guy.  I wish him well, even as I try, not altogether successfully, to resist the urge to laugh at his newly acquired political irrelevance, as he laughed at mine that day long ago in Springfield.






'Star Wars' as a Fundraising Hook...and Other, Disparate, Attention-Grabbing Items

Friday, December 11, 2015

MAY THE FARCE BE WITH YOU.  I never got “Star Wars,” the cultural phenomenon.  It seemed like a good enough movie to bring your six-year-old to on an overcast summer afternoon, but basically a long cartoon with spectacular special effects.  I could not suspend disbelief long enough to accept a large, hairy, speechless,  ape-man as the co-pilot of a space ship or a robot that looks like a vacuum cleaner making unintentionally humorous asides to his human overlords during a stopover at a distant planet that seemed no more distant than the California desert.  So I had to groan when Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung announced this week in a press release that he will hold a fundraiser on Dec. 17 tied to a special showing of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”  Said Councilor Cheung, “As a self-proclaimed Star Wars fanatic, I’m counting down the days and hours to the premier of The Force Awakens and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to enjoy the experience with members of the Cambridge, Somerville and Boston community.”  This fanaticism for the magic of a make-believe force is harmless in most cases, of course, and I have to give the councilor credit for not going all egg-head on us in his movie preferences.  But how does he get away with referring to Cambridge, Somerville and Boston as one community? Has he forgotten that part of the unacknowledged reward of owning a place near Harvard Square is the delight in not having to own in the Ball Squares and Roslindale Squares of the world?

ROUND 1 GOES TO THE DEER. The great hunt in the Blue Hills ended last week with the population of deer in the 7,000-acre reservation having been reduced by 64 beasts.  The anti-hunting fanatics immediately spun that number as evidence that (a) authorities had seriously overestimated the deer population when they pegged it somewhere between 600 and 800, and (b) the hunt was, therefore, totally unnecessary, and cruelly so.  I wish they’d given more credit to the deer.  These are intelligent, Massachusetts-bred fauna, living in a wealthy suburb where the MCAS scores skew high.  They know the territory far better than the hunters, as not a single marksman had been allowed into the Blue Hills for the hundred previous years, and the deer were running for their lives while the hunters were doing what many consider a sport, albeit one with the considerable, real-life consequence of inhibiting the spread of Lyme Disease.
IT’S GOOD TO BE THE DEAN.  When Bridgewater’s David Flynn, one of the best natural politicians of his generation and an irresistibly gregarious gentleman and raconteur, got elected to the Massachusetts House 1998, he began his second stint in the legislature.   He had served there previously some three decades before, from 1964 to 1972. That long interruption did not prevent his colleagues from immediately designating him the “Dean of the House,” the honorific bestowed on whoever is the current, longest-serving member.  The good thing about being the Dean is you don’t have to do anything.  It’s an honor, truly, because you receive it from your peers, but an honor without legal responsibilities or duties of any discernable difficulty whatsoever.  Being the Dean is a kick. All the time, you get hear things like “Good morning, Dean,” “How are you today, Dean,” and “You’re looking especially chipper today, Dean.”  Then there’s the gratification of having the Speaker step up to the microphone to introduce you by saying something like, “I know we’re all looking forward to hearing what the Dean has to say on this subject,” and of having one of your pals give you a shout-out during a floor speech, as in, “The Dean has warned us that we ought not to go down this road…And we all know it pays to listen when the Dean speaks.”   If ever there was a man cut out to be the Dean it was David Flynn.  He loved people, politics, and kibitzing on the floor of the House.  Not one to take himself too seriously, he excelled at the showmanship aspects of public office – the holding forth, the emoting on cue, the delivering of remarks-for-every-occasion and all that.  Showmanship is a valid and valuable implement in the politician’s toolbox.  Flynn’s natural sparkle seemed to glow a little brighter every time someone addressed him as "The Dean."  It seemed that he found the whole business more than a little comical, which enhanced the charm of the great old Irish package that was David Flynn.  He served six terms, 12 years, during his second run in the House before retiring gracefully in 2011.  He went out on top in his beloved Bridgewater, where he’d started public life in 1957 by winning election to the Playground Commission.  On December 10, Flynn, age 82, died at his home after a brief illness.  He left behind his wife, Barbara, nine children, 30 grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, a brother and a sister.  A Mass celebrating his life will be offered at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Bridgewater, this Tuesday morning.   The angels, no doubt, will welcome “The Dean” into paradise. 



Outcry for Mandating Sprinklers in New Homes Not Coming from the Public

Friday, December 4, 2015

There’s nothing preventing anyone who owns, or is buying, a home from installing a sprinkler system to stop a fire in his castle.

Have you ever known anyone who did that?
Similarly, anyone hiring a contractor to build a new home can ask for a sprinkler system and the contractor will install one.

Have you ever known anyone who asked a builder to do that?
I haven’t studied the issue in depth, but it seems fairly obvious why Americans avoid home sprinkler systems: the cost.

The National Fire Protection Association says the average cost of putting a sprinkler system in a new house is $1.35 per square foot, while the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts says it’s more like  $4.02 per square foot.
According to CNN Money, the average size of a new home in the U.S. in 2013 was 2,598 square feet.  Multiply 2,598 by $1.35 and then by $4.02; you get, respectively, $3,507.30 and $10,443.96.  The average of those sums is $6,975.63

Proponents of home sprinkler systems, who include virtually every organization there is for firefighters and fire chiefs, point out that (a) homes with sprinklers cost only 1% to 2% more than those without, and (b) annual insurance premiums for homes with sprinklers are significantly lower than for those without, in some cases as much as 20% or 25% lower.
No one is really opposed to home sprinkler systems per se.  However, there are many who oppose efforts to make them mandatory in new homes on the grounds that (a) the costs of adding sprinklers would keep many first-time homebuyers out of the market, and (b) the increase in residential safety brought about by sprinklers is too small to justify both the cost and the depressing effect it would have on home-buying.  (Housing has always been a major component of the American economy.) 

There are at least two bills pending before the Massachusetts legislature that would give cities and towns the option of requiring sprinkler systems in newly built one- and two-family homes: House Bill 2089, An Act Relative to Enhanced Fire Protection in One and Two Family Dwellings, and House Bill 2095, An Act to Prevent Deaths by Fire.  Both were heard by the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security on June 18, and both remain before that committee.  The committee has yet to issue a report on either bill. 
Firefighters are intimately associated with the risks and results of house fires.  They know what it’s like to carry a badly burned child out of a still-smoldering building and to watch helplessly as a raging house fire prevents them from rescuing an elderly person trapped inside.  They regularly have to face mortal danger themselves inside burning buildings that might never have got burning if there had been a sprinkler system on premises.   It’s not hard to see why the men and women on the front lines of public safety are pushing for sprinkler system mandates. 

As professionals who choose to spend their lives risking their lives to protect and save others, firefighters are among the most idealistic and courageous individuals you will ever know.   They deserve to be heeded respectfully when they say, Yes, sprinkler systems are expensive, but the cost is nothing compared to the value of the lives they save.  And how do you put a price tag on a human life?
Nevertheless, I think they’re wrong when they go down the sprinkler mandate path, even if it’s only leading, at present, toward giving cities and towns the option of mandating them in new one- and two-family construction.

First, I agree with those who say House Bills 2089 and 2095 would set a bad precedent and cause problems in the construction sector by fracturing the hard-earned uniformity of the state building code.  Richard Crowley, chair of the state Board of Building Regulations and Standards, argued this point on June 18.  “I am a proponent of a unified building code that is fully integrated across the state,” said Crowley, a licensed builder. “For the 40 years the code has been in existence, it has worked very well from the user point of view.”
Second, I believe the home builders and realtors of Massachusetts are correct when they say the costs of sprinkler systems will discourage first-time home buyers, reduce the rate of home ownership, erect  new barriers to families trying to make it into the middle class, and drain energy from the Massachusetts economy.  Testimony submitted to the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security indicates that, for every $1,000 added to the cost of a new home in Massachusetts, 2,500 more persons/families cannot afford to buy a home.

Third, the communities most likely to opt for a sprinkler mandate, if such an option was created by law, would be the wealthier ones, as local decision-makers reason, correctly, that well-to-do buyers will  just shrug at, and pay, the higher costs involved.  Wealthy suburban communities would thus become more costly, more exclusive.  Presumably, this is the kind of situation a uniform statewide building code is designed to discourage.  The code’s now the same for everyone, no matter where they reside; every Massachusetts resident is equal before it. 
Fourth, anything that could make housing more expensive in Massachusetts, which has, in the eastern part of the state, some of the highest housing costs in the nation, is not a welcome development.  We should be mindful that housing affordability is tied to income inequality, one of the biggest problems our society faces.

Five, home sprinkler systems do not seem to offer significantly greater protection than that provided by a much cheaper, easier-to-install alternative: hard-wired smoke detectors.  Ben Fierro, an attorney representing the Homebuilders and Remodelers Association, has noted that “Single-family homes under Massachusetts’s modern standards are required to have a hard-wired smoke detector.  With these in place, survival from serious fires is 99.62%.  With sprinklers in place, this number goes up to 99.82%.”  Referring to a calculation made earlier in this post, I can’t help but ask: How many homeowners are willing to spend $6,975.63 to improve their chances of surviving a house fire by two-tenths of a percentage point?  Here’s a follow-up: Would a local government be morally justified in requiring a family to spend $6,975.63 to improve their chances of surviving a house fire by that small a margin?
Six, just because a public safety improvement is possible doesn’t mean public officials ought to mandate private expenditures to achieve it.  We could reduce traffic fatalities by requiring all drivers and passengers to wear state-of-the-art helmets when they’re in a moving vehicle, but no one is seriously calling for universal, in-vehicle helmet use.

Lastly, I have some qualms about firefighters being in a position to benefit financially, down the line, from their legislative advocacy, which is often undertaken while they’re on the clock, even though that advocacy may spring from the noblest of intentions.  Residential sprinkler systems require at least annual inspections to make sure they are not leaking and will function properly in the event of a fire.  In every community I’m aware of, the local fire chief is responsible for administering the sprinkler system checks, and inspection fees are charged to the private citizens and companies who own the residential structures in question.  Firefighters, being the most knowledgeable persons in any locality on the science and mechanics of fire suppression, are the most logical (not to say most available) persons to conduct such inspections.  If local-option home sprinkler mandates come to pass, home sprinkler inspections will necessarily increase, as will the amounts collected through inspection fees.  Opportunities to earn private-detail, off-hours pay through inspections will almost certainly grow.