Bill had just moved into a new neighborhood. It was gentrifying, it was rough, and Bill had been burglarized a number of times in his previous apartment. Here, he had a fire escape on his back window, so for added protection, he bought retractable “accordion” gates, which the locksmith told him were a must: “There have been two robberies around here already.” By week’s end, there had been a third. At Bill’s. The burglars had opened his window, kicked in the gates, and entered.
Window security is an issue for co-op and condo owners – and one not easily solved. “You build a better mousetrap, you get a smarter mouse,” remarks one security consultant. And it isn’t only gentrifying neighborhoods and ground-floor apartments that are of concern. At a co-op on 29th Street and Broadway, fourth floor apartments with wide window ledges were constantly being burglarized.
“It was not where you’d expect it to happen,” says Dick Berry, the building’s developer. “This was the fourth floor. And it wasn’t Alphabet City – Avenues A, B, and C – either. Crime is not limited to ‘bad’ areas.”
Nor are the solutions limited to seemingly ineffective gates. A cottage industry has grown around security, ranging from the very simple to the very complex, depending on what shareholders and/or the board feels is necessary. And since lawsuits against co-op corporations often follow break-ins, boards should be concerned.
NAILING THE PROBLEM
The simplest technique is to use a nail. “I recommend that tenants pin every window,” says Officer Rocco Osso of the 26th Precinct’s Crime Prevention Unit. What this involves is drilling a three-inch hole in each corner and inserting a removable nail there. Osso and other security experts claim this method makes it nearly impossible to pry open a window.
“The ‘locking device’ on most windows is really just designed to pin the windows together and prevent drafts,” notes Osso. “It’s very easy to circumvent with a knife. But all the pressure in the world is not going to circumvent that pin. The only way they’re going to get through is by breaking the window.”
Although that is unlikely in a front apartment, windows can be broken in a back unit that looks out on an alley or courtyard. In such cases, time and concealment are on the thief’s side. That’s usually where more sophisticated measures, such as gates, are necessary.
“Basically, a gate says you have to be pretty strong, pretty professional, and have a lot of time to get in,” observes developer/managing agent Berry. “If you’re a common criminal in a hurry, you’ll say, ‘I’ll try someplace else.’”
But what kinds of gates are best? On fire escapes, the standard for years has been a four-piece retractable gate, called the PAG, with criss-cross diamond mesh, about an inch in diameter. Made of gray steel, it slides open-and-shut on a metal track. For a long time, it had been the only fire escape gate permitted by the New York Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA).
“The gates must have a full bottom and top track,” observes Osso. “That will prevent someone bending them in. They should also be firmly affixed to the windows. People often use incorrect screws or they might have put the gate onto a frame that’s old and dried out.”
Yet there are critics of the PAG. One East Village tenant moved into a co-op apartment where the gates were already in place. “When I took them out to have new windows installed, I was bowled over by how much light they had been cutting out. And they were really ugly, too. I also thought, if it was so easy for me to take them down – with a screwdriver – it would be just as easy for someone else, as well.” And, in fact, the tenant later saw firemen removing a similar gate from a burning building’s window “in seconds.”
“Those gates have four separate parts: the frame, the top channel, the bottom channel, and the gate itself,” notes a manufacturer of window bars. “That makes them weaker.” A spokesman for Gates-R-Us, a locksmith, adds: “We don’t recommend those gates. They’re easy to break into and made of very light metal. A criminal can kick them in very easily.”
GOING TO THE BAR
The more frequent alternative lately – in cost, as well as looks – has been wrought-iron bars. A number of companies have come up with a solution: keyless half-doors that swing on hinges. By law, there cannot be a padlock on a fire escape door. “That’s illegal,” says Mark Jachniewicz, an engineer. One tenant, feeling his gate was too flimsy, bolted it shut with a lock. “You needed a stick of dynamite to get it open,” recalls Jachniewicz. A whole family burned to death in another situation because they had illegally padlocked the gate and, during a fire, couldn’t find the key.
The Board of Standards and Appeals, which rules on window guards, considers a number of points when it rules on the legality of gates:
(1) Lock. No padlock permitted.
(2) Installation. Must be with standard wood or sheet-metal screws, with one-inch anchorage.
(3) Space. There must be a “quarter-inch continuous space for a depth of at least three-fourths of an inch between the window frame and the gate frame jamb sections for the entire height of the gate.”
(4) Passage. The gate must not obstruct passage on the fire escape.
(5) Ease. The mechanism must, in Jachniewicz’s words, “be able to be opened by a frail old lady or a child. We don’t want you to have to be a Rambo to get it open.”
A number of gates conform to these requirements. “You never have a full gate on a fire escape window,” says one gate manufacturer. “You want to leave a stationary transom on the top. The shorter the gate, the stronger the gate. And it’s good for Venetian blinds or curtains.”
What effect do bars have on the inhabitants? “Most people adjust,” observes John Vitkus, a social personality psychologist at Barnard College. “There’s the habituation effect, a process where you stop noticing stimuli after a while. The classic example is traffic noise. When you first move to the city, it seems really loud. After a while, you hardly notice it. There’s also cognitive dissonance, meaning you make the best of it. People who have the bars for a while like the security and emphasize their safety. People who don’t have them, think bars are ugly and a constant reminder of the danger of the city.”
“These gates are more secure,” says a locksmith. “It’s a solid unit, not four pieces, on a solid frame made to a specific window size. It’s more difficult to pry open.”
Many tenants also install bars on non-fire escape windows that may have ledges or accessibility from neighboring roofs. These can be half-gates without the special keyless locking device, secured with padlocks and placed on the outside of the window (many firms recommend half-gates as an alternative escape route in a fire).
Boards should be wary about what tenants do with bars, however. One West 60s co-op, for instance, is facing a fine because the tenant, a renter in a sponsor-owned unit, put stationary bars on a fire escape. “The managing agent should check the installation,” says a manager. “It shouldn’t be done by the resident, and there should be standards so that each job is done uniformly and properly. I’ve seen some pretty shoddy work that doesn’t protect anyone.”
SOUND THE ALARM
In addition to gates and bars, owners can opt for more expensive methods. Among them is an electronic pad, which is placed on a fire escape. It sets off an alarm when stepped on. “We had one of those for a while, but I don’t recommend it,” comments managing agent Gerard J. Picaso, principal in his own eponymous firm. “It only works if the burglar is stupid or blind, since there is a big sign attached to it that says, ‘Warning: If you step on this pad an alarm sounds.’ All he had to do to get in was step over it.”
Many buildings use security tape, or foil, for their fire escape windows. This sets off an alarm if broken. Some tenants put up phony foil, unconnected to an alarm. “That’s not very effective,” observes a security expert. “If a burglar wants to test the system, all he has to do is break it once and see if it sets off an alarm.”
There are wireless alarms and motion detectors, which are activated when someone walks on the fire escape or tries to open or break a window. A loud alarm is set off and a message is sent to the police. Alarm companies can also wire roof doors and scaffolding in place for building exterior work.
“If you only alarm the bottom of the fire escape, you might have a problem,” says Picaso. “A lot of times, burglars get in through the front door by pretending to be delivering a package. Someone buzzes them in, and they go up to the roof and have access to the apartments by the fire escape. That’s why we alarm the whole fire escape, as well as our roof doors, which we keep locked.”
As Picaso indicates, however, all the bars and alarms in the world will prove ineffective if tenants themselves are not wary. “People have a gate, so they leave their windows open,” says a security consultant. “They feel secure. But people should be on the lookout. I am my brother’s keeper, you know.”
Watchfulness includes being careful who you let in through the front door, whether it’s buzzing in a messenger or letting a well-dressed stranger who is following you enter. A board might consider placing lights, triggered by timers, on back-alley fire escapes, while the police and security consultants recommend that tenants keep illumination on in fire escape windows when they’re out.
If you’re on the board and the residents in your building aren’t taking adequate security precautions, watch out: you could be liable. Here’s a problem: five out of six tenants in fire-escape apartments that face an alleyway have added gates to their windows. The sixth tenant refuses. The board is concerned because there have been a series of break-ins in the area, and the exposed window seems to be inviting trouble.
The tenant will not put gates up and says he’ll sue the board if they try to force him. The board is worried that if a burglar gains access to the building through that unit the corporation will be liable and could be sued by other tenants for not dealing with a hazardous situation.
The board is not powerless, however. According to Richard Siegler, a partner with Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, in such cases, the board can order the tenant to add gates or threaten to have them installed by the building management at the tenant’s expense.
“The board has certain general powers and they can mandate it,” says Siegler. “Take another example: a dishwasher floods every day and is ruining the ceilings of two apartments below it. The board can’t ignore that. They can take action to correct it. It’s the same with security questions.”
Siegler cites a California case where a woman successfully sued a condominium board for not adding “safety lighting” to a dark area. She had been raped and the board lost because it had known of the hazardous condition and hadn’t corrected it.
“As a landlord,” notes Siegler, “the board has a duty to take reasonable steps to protect tenants from criminal acts and may be held liable if it doesn’t.”
This story originally appeared in the September 1987 Habitat.