Fire Safety: A Tragic Reminder of Importance

On December 28, 2017, New York City had the deadliest fire since the 1990s where there were 12 fatalities, three of them children. While this happened in a rental building, the construction is like many cooperative buildings in the city, and this incident reminds us all, regardless of building size or location of the importance of fire safety.

Comprehensive fire legislation had been enacted in NYC in the 1860s in the wake of the “Great Fire of 1835,” in which 300 buildings were destroyed, and many lives lost. The Great New York Fire destroyed the New York Stock Exchange and most of the buildings on the southeast tip of Manhattan around Wall Street on December 16-17, 1835.

The fire began in the evening in a five-story warehouse at 25 Merchant Street (now called Beaver Street) at the intersection with Pearl Street between Hanover Square and Wall Street in the snow-covered city and was fed by gale-force winds blowing from the northwest towards the East River. With temperatures around 17 below zero (F) and the East River frozen solid, firefighters had to cut holes in the ice to get water. Water then froze in the hoses and pumps. Attempts to blow up buildings in its path were thwarted by a lack of gunpowder in Manhattan. Firefighters coming to help from Philadelphia, Pa. said they could see signs of the fire.

About 2 a.m., Marines returned with gunpowder from the Brooklyn Navy Yard and blew up buildings in the fire’s path. By then the fire covered 50 acres, 17 blocks of the city, destroying between 530 and 700 buildings. The losses were estimated at 20 million dollars, which, in today’s value would be hundreds of millions. Only two people were killed.

The 2017 tragic incident in the Bronx started when a 3-year-old boy was playing with knobs on a gas burner on a ground floor apartment. The extent of the fire was exacerbated when the family left the door to the apartment open after fleeing, allowing the fire to spread faster and more extensively throughout the building.

The violations on record were found to be not directly related to the actual incident. This fire serves as a reminder that not only is violation abatement important in terms of fire safety but so is the maintenance of the fire safety measures already in place.

Here are some items to review and consider ahead of an inspection or incident to help keep on top of fire safety.

FIRE DOORS: As with the Bronx fire, certain doors are rated to be fire resistant per code. However, if the door is damaged or has been tampered with, it will not perform as needed. Be especially aware if the glass within a door is cracked or broken and if the door does not fully close properly into the frame.

SELF-CLOSERS: Related to the doors, some doors have spring hinges or hydraulic arms along the top to ensure that after opening the door returns to the closed position. If the door sits ajar when left alone, then the door or the selfcloser needs to be fixed or replaced. Also, note the people, who get annoyed at having to re-open common doors, prop them open with a doorstop: this action can be dangerous and replicate what happened in the Bronx fire.

BLOCKED PATHS OF TRAVEL: We can all relate to knowing the family whose belongings routinely land outside their unit. Strollers, push carts, umbrellas may seem temporary and benign, but they can block an important path of travel, especially when fire can make a passageway difficult to maneuver with smoke. This scenario is also important for older buildings where fire has escaped along the outside; flower pots, laundry, holiday lights may seem innocuous, but they need to be removed.

ILLUMINATION: Of course, lights in passageways always need to be maintained. But in the event of a fire or other situation, power may go out. Some lights can be fitted with their own in-unit battery-powered backup; depending on the location and situation, it may even be code required. Beyond that, there are photo-luminescence (glow-in-the-dark) decals and strips that can be easily applied to certain elements (like stairs) to help people navigate in the event of a fire or loss of power.

FIRE EXTINGUISHERS: They expire. Always make sure required fire extinguishers are current and not past expiration.

SMOKE DETECTORS: They run out of power. Always make sure these units are functioning and located where required. Some jurisdictions also require carbon monoxide detection units, which can be in a combination unit.

GAS COOKING: The Bronx fire started with a gas stove. Connections to units should be reviewed for needed repairs. If a unit has children, safety cover products are available for gas cooking equipment.

The above are just some of the fire safety maintenance matters to keep in mind. Each cooperative community will have their own matters to track. In general, what is important is to keep abreast of them before a tragedy occurs.

This article is for general informational purposes. NAHC and Walker urge cooperatives to consult with a qualified industry professional for analysis and for answers to specific questions and sites. The author thanks the History of N.Y. Fire Departments for select information.

Leon Yudkin Geoxavier is a registered architect (NY/ NJ/PA) and restoration consultant with Walker Consultants in New City, N.Y. He is a former president of Southridge Cooperative Section #1, Inc., in Jackson Heights (Queens), N.Y.

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