Stuart Smolar, executive director of Andrews Building Corp., remembers the Tribeca loft fire vividly. “It was in the early 1990s and there was a dry Christmas tree that spontaneously erupted,” he recalls. “It went up like a bomb. Luckily, there was a sprinkler head right above the tree which doused the fire and limited the damage. The sprinkler was extremely effective.” If Smolar hadn’t been sure before, this experience cemented his conviction: sprinklers are the best fire suppression system for residential buildings. But which dwellings are legally required to have them?
According to Lori Guye, a building code consultant for Conversano Associates, Local Law 11/98 mandates that residential buildings of four or more units constructed after 1999 must install them. Similarly, residential lofts must have sprinklers if there is no fire escape because all multiple dwellings – buildings of three or more units –must have two means of egress. In most properties, the dual methods are a staircase and fire escape; if a loft lacks the latter, sprinklers are needed. In addition, hi-rises of 75 or more feet must have sprinklers in the trash compactor and in the room that houses it; the garbage shute must have sprinklers on alternate floors.
“Sprinklers are fairly inexpensive to maintain,” Smolar says. “Once a month the maintenance company checks that the valves are open and once a year they test to make sure the water flows at an appropriate level. The master fire suppression contractor or master plumber who performs this test must submit a certificate to the Bureau of Fire Prevention, 9 Metro Tech Center, Brooklyn, NY 11201. There is also a five-year test on the connections that is required by the fire department. Sometimes a building has a choice. The sprinkler may not be legally required and residents will debate whether to keep an existing system or remove it. Yes, there are aesthetic concerns because you need piping and vertical risers, plus sprinkler heads, but when the system is properly installed and monitored, it provides an immediate response. Sprinklers are attached to central station alarms. This means that a signal goes to an outside third-party location, which calls the fire department. This signal is generated 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
Despite Smolar’s belief in the superiority of sprinklers, he concedes that to install them is both complicated and costly. So how else can you protect yourself? By law, every unit must have a smoke alarm and carbon monoxide (CO) detector within 15 feet of the sleeping quarters. A certificate of satisfactory installation of CO detectors should be filed with the borough code enforcement office of the Office of Housing, Preservation, and Development (HPD) within 10 days of installation. “The fire department [FDNY] does not inspect individual apartments in multiple dwellings, so it is up to the board of directors to insure compliance,” says David Billig, a spokesman for the FDNY. Because of this, board member Miranda Patterson’s 13-unit Manhattan co-op requires residents to purchase a fire extinguisher as well as detectors. Once a year, the owners must certify, in writing, that the equipment is in good working order. Although most boards are not this stringent, the FDNY suggests that everyone follow this example.
In addition to self-regulation, the FDNY inspects multiple dwellings every five years. Notes Billig: “Every building must prepare and distribute annually, either in October or January, a fire safety plan detailing evacuation procedures. In addition, the boards of co-ops and condos must post in the lobby, and distribute to all units, a notice outlining procedures to be followed in the event of a fire.” It is up to the board or management to create these notices and develop an evacuation plan.
Peter Blaich, a firefighter with Ladder Company 123 in Brooklyn, says that when he and his colleagues inspect a building, they look for this notice and also check to make sure that hallways are clear and that neither the bulkhead door nor the scuttle to the roof are padlocked. “The bulkhead and scuttle need locks that can slide open from the inside. They must be keyless because keyed locks are illegal. We also make sure that fire escapes aren’t bolted and are maintained. People often lock these exits because they’re afraid of being robbed, but you can never find a key in a fire. There are devices you can use to maintain security and still be able to get out easily,” Blaich says. “We also check that fire escape drop ladders aren’t in disrepair. If they’re rusted or loose, they must be sanded down, repainted, and bolstered.” Fire personnel inspect the roof to make sure that all antennas, wires, and/or cables are elevated. “There can’t be anything there that might provide a tripping hazard,” Blaich continues. “Smoke rises and if there are wires or cables lying flat, firefighters can get tangled.”
Additionally, boiler rooms are scrutinized to insure that they are rubbish-free. Boiler rooms in multiple dwellings must have a self-closing door with a labeled shut-off switch on the outside. If the building has an oil burner, there must be two pails of sand or a 15-pound dry-chemical fire extinguisher nearby. The extinguisher must be serviced annually (it is the responsibility of the management company or board to insure that this is done). Oil tanks holding 275 or more gallons must be vaulted or buried in the ground.
If FDNY notices anything amiss, they issue either a notice of violation [NOV] or a violation order. NOVs, for less-serious offenses, are filed with the Environmental Control Board. “If we issue a violation,” says Blaich, “you usually have 16 days to comply. But if it’s super-serious – for example, if we find flammable materials on a fire escape – you’ll have 24 hours to clear it. Violations go to Criminal Court and the fine is determined by a judge. The Environmental Control Board issues a summons for an NOV and decides on the fine, if any.”
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, 1.7 million fires were reported in 2002, resulting in 3,380 deaths and 11,000 injuries. “Fires are always going to happen,” Blaich says, “and the fire department is always going to be there, but there are things you can do to protect yourself and your neighbors. Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors save lives. Make sure you have emergency lighting so that if there is a fire you can get out. Stairways need to be labeled. And housekeeping is a huge issue. Once trash piles up, you’re more prone to fires. Don’t let it accumulate. Use common sense.”