I have to think that John W. Hetrick shared much in common with many of you who read pme.



I have to think that John W. Hetrick shared much in common with many of you who read pme. An engineer, he devoted much of his career to protecting the public’s health and safety.

One difference between Hetrick and you is that he was concerned more about motor vehicle passengers than building occupants. He was an industrial engineer who invented the automobile airbag.

Hetrick used his experience in the U.S. Navy when he designed the 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 recently had the occasion to do a little research on airbags. The occasion occurred suddenly one night last month when another driver blew through a stop sign and slammed 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 its job in cushioning the blow.

After an ambulance ride to the hospital, and a battery of tests conducted by the ER staff, I walked out of the emergency room late that night and caught a cab home. Feeling very lucky, I decided to find out who designed the first airbag. My hunch was the inventor had to be an engineer.

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.

I view airbags much the same way as I look at fire sprinklers. Both devices make so much sense because they save lives. Yet they usually require legislative bodies to put them into a position where they can perform the job they’re designed to do.

Fire sprinklers have been saving lives longer than airbags have. Henry S. Parmalee installed the first automatic fire sprinkler system in 1874, referring to his invention as the “automatic fire extinguisher.”

Last January, just 137 years later, 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% 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%.

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.

If you work in one of these locales, we urge you to become an outspoken advocate for fire sprinklers to protect the public’s health and safety. Legislators should see the wisdom of fire sprinklers before they get hit in the head with the realization – through a catastrophic fire.