Four residents die in a Christmas Eve blaze at a Manhattan high-rise. Critics say sprinklers or a better fire safety program, or both, could have prevented the fire. Should the board of a cooperative, condominium, or homeowners association be concerned?
The cry of “fire” can be terrifying and the after-effects devastating. Barry Manson, president of ABM Management, recalls a tragic blaze at a cooperative he managed: “We had a 78-year-old shareholder in a three-story co-op who had been a steamfitter during World War II. She decided one day to try and replace some bathroom pipes and used a propane welding gun. She set fire to the building and we lost eight apartments.”
A horrible occurrence – yet what is a board’s responsibility in such a case? What should it do? And what can it afford to do?
FOLLOW THE CODE
At the very least, a board must be sure the property fulfills all local fire safety requirements. To most, what is prudent – and what the shareholders and boards will accept – is to make sure that the property complies with existing building and fire codes.
Typically, blazes begin in homes where many people live in crowded conditions, and dangerous conditions go uncorrected. Space heaters overload electrical circuits, windows are sealed off with plastic sheeting in the winter, and homemade electrical repairs do not meet the code. The biggest killer in residential fires is cigarette smoking.
There are a number of safety requirements cited by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an educational trade organization, in its National Fire Code. Among them:
• Be sure there is an emergency gas shutoff valve on the exterior of each building.
• Have all piping installation inspected and tested for pressure and leaks. The system must withstand the test pressure without showing any evidence of leaks or other defects.
• Double check that water heaters are not installed in bathrooms, bedrooms, or any occupied room normally kept closed.
• See that operating instructions for gas-fueled equipment are placed in a prominent area near the equipment.
Most natural gas and propane suppliers use the National Fuel Gas Code, adopted by many states, as their company standard. Where propane is the fuel gas, the National Fuel Gas Code is a companion to NFPA 58 (Standard for the Storage and Handling of Liquefied Petroleum Gases), which provides the standard for the installation of the propane storage tank and piping to the first-stage pressure regulator.
NFPA 70, the National Electrical Code (NEC), provides practical safeguarding of persons and property from electrical hazards. The NEC covers electric conductors and equipment. Wiring, general electrical equipment, the use of electricity in specific occupancies, and equipment (ranging from elevators to hot tubs) are covered, as are special conditions (emergency and standby power, or conditions requiring more than 600 volts, for example) and communication systems.
The code includes hundreds of provisions, including these for electrical receptacles in homes. Among them:
•Receptacle outlets for most rooms in a home are required so that no point in a wall space is more than six feet from a receptacle outlet. This requirement helps to minimize the need for extension cords.
• A receptacle outlet is required for the laundry in each dwelling unit. An additional receptacle outlet is required for each one-family dwelling in its basement, attached garage, and detached garage with electric power. (Receptacle outlets installed in garages and unfinished basements must have ground-fault circuit-interrupter protection.)
• Dwelling units are required to have ground-fault circuit-interrupter protection for receptacle outlets installed outdoors, and for receptacle outlets in bathrooms, garages, unfinished accessory buildings, crawl spaces, unfinished basements, and for those installed to serve kitchen countertops, or to serve wet-bar counter tops if within six feet of the sink.
• Ground-fault circuit-interrupter protection is generally required for swimming pool, fountain, spa and hot tub, and hydro-massage bathtub installations.
Boards should also be sure to instruct residents on proper safety procedures. A fire safety campaign is always worthwhile, even if it repeats the basics. There are a number of safety maxims to remember: “stop, drop, and roll,” “get low and go,” and “plan a family meeting place.”
Boards must conduct regular equipment inspections. “It makes me angry to see and hear about people who have defeated the smoke detectors in their apartments,” says David Kuperberg, president of Cooper Square Realty in Manhattan, noting that some people remove the batteries from detectors because they go off during cooking. When they do that, he adds, “they’re really playing Russian roulette.”
Kuperberg, who is also a firefighter with a volunteer fire company in Westchester, says that a pro-active building manager should be certain that any major renovation plan has a proviso allowing hard-wired smoke detectors to be installed.
According to the NFPA, detectors are one of the most important safety features a property can have. Properly installed, working detectors will give the early warning necessary to safely escape a blaze. But how do you make sure your detectors are working?
As electronic devices, the NFPA reports, “detectors are subject to random failures. Product, installation, and maintenance standards are used to assure products work as designed despite this. Part of the technical basis for the first detector product standard was an assessment of expected failure rate, estimated at four per million hours of operation or one every 30 years. Early field studies of detector reliability, notably by Canada’s Ontario Housing Corporation, confirmed the essential accuracy.”
How soon should you replace a detector? Only three percent are likely to fail in the first year, and annual replacement would be very expensive. At 15 years, the chances are better than 50 percent that your detector has failed. Manufacturers’ warranties for the early detectors typically ran out in 3 to 5 years. So, in 10 years there is roughly a 30 percent probability of failure before replacement. This seems to balance safety and cost in a way that makes sense.
If a 30 percent failure probability seems too high, remember that replacement on a schedule is merely a backup for replacement based on testing. The NFPA reports that a “national study found home smoke detectors, when they fail, tend to fail totally, as opposed to hard-to-detect creeping failure, such as a loss of sensitivity. Regular monthly testing will help discover detector failure as well as a dead or missing battery. You can replace your detector when it needs replacing.”
The same study showed that all the inoperable detectors tested in 1992 were at least five years old and predated a 1987 change in product standards that reduced sensitivity so as to reduce nuisance alarms. Changes in detector chip design, among other improvements, make it likely that electronic failures now occur at a rate much less than four times per million hours of operation.
Replacing detectors after a decade protects against the accumulated chance of failure, but monthly testing is still the best means of making sure detectors work. Regular maintenance of the more sophisticated systems used in larger buildings can keep them working very reliably for many decades.
NFPA 72, the National Fire Alarm Code, sets minimum requirements for fire alarm systems, household fire warning equipment, protected premises fire alarm systems, systems with a supervising station (a facility that receives signals and is always staffed to respond), initiating devices (such as heat detectors, smoke detectors, radiant energy detectors, and gas detectors), and audible and visible notification devices. The National Fire Alarm Code also covers inspection, testing, and maintenance of fire alarm systems.
NFPA 72 covers fire alarms “from A to Z,” viewing each component as part of an integrated system. As a result, the National Fire Alarm Code covers detecting a hazardous condition, alerting people at risk, calling aid, and controlling other fire safety functions, such as fan and door controls. In addition, the code sets minimum requirements for supervisory and trouble signals:
Fire alarm systems must have two independent, reliable power supplies. In the home, smoke detectors are required outside each separate sleeping area and on each level of the living unit, including basements. In new construction, NFPA 72 requires a smoke detector in each sleeping room. Additionally, in new construction, all detectors must be interconnected so that when one detector activates, all detectors sound the alarm.
Fire alarm systems must produce an alarm signal that is different from all other signals. This signal may not be used for other purposes.
The minimum visual signal appliance rating for daytime (non-sleeping) areas is 15 candelas. Testing and maintenance of fire alarm systems is the responsibility of the property owner. Smoke detectors require an annual functional test and periodic sensitivity testing.
The NFPA also offers warnings about owners with iron bars and gates that protect against intruders. Most security bars are permanently installed on windows and cannot be opened to allow escape in case of an emergency. Despite a downward trend in overall fire deaths, the number of deaths related to illegal security bars is on the rise.
In April 1997, the NFPA reports, nine family members died in a house fire in East Palo Alto, CA. In February 1997, four children perished in Tampa, FL. In December 1996, a family of five died in Bessemer, AL, and five Los Angeles children lost their lives. “In all of these incidents, security bars on windows and locked doors prevented escape from the fire and also inhibited firefighters’ rescue attempts,” says the NFPA.
The NFPA Center for High-Risk Outreach concerned about this growing problem, formed the Home Security and Fire Safety Task Group. It has published a report and produced a community information packet to raise awareness. The report describes the scope of the problem and identifies some key factors contributing to the rise in the number of incidents. The information packet includes a community leaders’ guide and several reproducible flyers that have key messages, safety tips, and illustrations of quick release devices that allow the bars to open for emergency escape.
The NFPA Life Safety Code’s objective is to provide safety to life during emergencies. It requires a “prompt escape” during emergencies and make buildings more pleasant during normal conditions. Spacious corridors and the convenience of multiple exits, for example, result from requirements for “prompt escape.”
What additional steps can a board take to be proactive about fire safety? One good idea is to study the internet for fire safety tips and new strategies. These might include a mailing of recent articles on fire safety to all tenants, new notices or decals, which can be affixed to doors, or asking a representative of the local fire department to attend the next board meeting.
One website, at www.fireplans.com is specifically addressed to building owners and property managers, and provides fire safety tips. A valuable article by Casey Grant, technical director of codes and standards for the NFPA, can be viewed at www.facilitiesnet.com, which is also geared to building managers. And there’s useful information on the comprehensive site maintained by the NFPA (www.nfpa.org).
Kuperberg says that interest in fire safety is high, and that he is working with one large co-op to develop a building-wide public address safety system, which would carry into each apartment. “Although we already had hard-wired smoke detectors and hall lighting,” he notes, “the board wanted to go further.”
Inspection reports that must be completed every month are a familiar tool of building managers, who often require that exit signs, fire doors, and emergency lighting be checked by building staff. It is also good practice to send out periodic reminders to tenants to check their smoke detector batteries if they are not hard-wired.
When resales and sublets close, ABM requires a smoke detector affidavit attesting that there is an operable smoke detector in the apartment, signed by both the seller and the purchaser, or by the shareholder and the subtenant.
As to code violations cited by the fire department, building managers say they move quickly. Observes Manson: “If the fire department cites violations, they are handled on a priority basis. We usually try and have them done within 24 hours. If it’s going to cost a great deal of money, we don’t wait for a board meeting. We call board members and advise them by phone that this has to be corrected, and get approvals. Often, we don’t bother to get bids; we get a reliable contractor, get a price, and get it done. When lives are at stake you don’t try to save a couple of bucks.”
The board should check into insurance. In one big co-op blaze, Manson notes that many shareholders had been out of their apartments for as long as six months. The manager says that, of the eight apartments that were badly damaged in this fire, only five carried fire insurance. The policies covered the shareholders for the cost of hotels and alternate housing until repairs were made.
“The other three had to rely on the Red Cross and the generosity of friends and family until they got back in,” he notes. “We had a few buildings in our portfolio which did not require homeowners’ policies but as a result of that fire, they almost instantly passed resolutions requiring evidence of a homeowners’ policy.”
Discuss sprinklers. They are required in some buildings. Most condo and co-op owners would probably not be willing to part with money to retrofit their buildings, let alone consider the aesthetics, of installing sprinklers. According to press reports, even tenants of a 51-story apartment building in mid-Manhattan where four people died of smoke inhalation, are not willing to foot the bill for sprinklers.
It has long been an article of faith in the American fire service that there has never been a multiple fatality in a building that is “fully protected” by a sprinkler system. But the obstacles to any legislation requiring it remain formidable, and it is acknowledged by all knowledgeable parties that, in order to pass the legislature, any sprinkler law would have to cover only new buildings and those being extensively renovated.
Did the building where the Christmas Eve fire occurred have a residential sprinkler system? No. Manson says: “The cost is absolutely prohibitive. It would have bankrupted the co-op.” He notes that the building had emergency lighting in the hallways and smoke detectors in each apartment and in every hallway. “They worked, and they saved peoples’ lives,” he says. Other building managers echo Manson’s acknowledgement that boards are reluctant to pay for the installation of sprinkler systems.
“I’m probably the only managing agent who purposefully goes into burning buildings. I’ve seen the damage that fire can do, first hand,” notes Kuperberg, who admits that sprinkler installation in existing buildings is “impractical, and sometimes impossible.” Besides the cost, he cites structural considerations, such as ceiling heights: “You may not have the height to properly place sprinklers and conceal the pipes. There are other factors,” he continues, “such as asbestos and lead paint, which make it almost impossible to do in old buildings.”
Nonetheless, even without sprinklers, boards have an obligation to make sure that when the cry of “fire” is heard, their residents are ready to respond. It is literally a matter of life and death.
Alan Saly is a freelance writer. This story originally appeared in the April 1999 issue of Habitat.