Commercial buildings rehearse several times a year. Residential buildings hand out a playbook and hope for the best.
Even though you hear talk about fire-exit regulations, fire department inspections, and fireproof doors, chances are that if you had been at the Strand on January 5 when a fire broke out, you would have headed down the stairs. That’s just what Daniel McClung did during the blaze at that West 43rd Street condominium. He and his husband, Michael Cohen, knowing only that their building was on fire, tried to exit from the 32nd floor – and ran headlong into smoke from the 20th that killed McClung and put Cohen in the hospital.
But, I mean, it’s a fire. If one erupts in your building, you’re supposed to escape, right?
“You start to panic and think, ‘I got to get the hell out of the building,’ and start running down the stairs,” says former New York City Fire Department (FDNY) lieutenant Frank Papalia, director of fire and life safety services for Global Security Group. But if the fire is below you, he warns, running into the wrong stairwell or the only stairwell “is like running into a house with a fireplace and climbing into the chimney. That’s what it’s like. It’s bad. It’s really bad.”
In more instances than you’d imagine, you don’t need to exit a burning building. McClung apparently didn’t know that. As much as the heat and smoke, it was a lack of knowledge that killed him.
Commercial buildings have stringent fire-safety requirements. Why don’t residential properties have them too? “I believe it was easier for the city to regulate commercial and hotel building safety standards,” says city council member Corey Johnson, who is developing a fire safety bill in the wake of the Strand fire and other recent tragedies. “We have a housing stock whose age varies widely, and while now sprinklers must go into new buildings, cost has always been a factor [when it comes] to improving safety in residential buildings.”
“You think about an office building, where everybody gets together on the floor and [a fire marshal tells them], ‘Here are the rules and what to do in case of a fire,’” says Gary Mindlin, board president of 150 West End Avenue in Manhattan’s Lincoln Towers complex, who also has a management perspective as owner of a company that manages brownstones and townhouses. “That kind of drill is harder to do in an apartment building,” where people might or might not be home at a certain time and who, unlike office workers, would not be required to attend.
Yet fire safety experts, politicians, building managers, and others are looking toward the horizon for the new regulations that surely will come down. This is New York’s pattern. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 prompted 60 pieces of fire safety and labor regulations, while the four-fatality fire in 1998 at the Upper West Side apartment of actor Macaulay Culkin’s family led to Local Law 10 (LL10) of 1999. That law mandated, among other safety measures, that sprinklers be installed in all newly constructed residential buildings with more than four apartments.
If you live in a New York State building erected after April 18, 1929, it’s rated either “fireproof” or “non-fireproof.” In practical terms, most new construction of the last few decades is fireproof, built with brick, poured concrete, and metal rather than wood studs.
If you live in a non-fireproof building, “You leave, no matter where the fire is,” advises Jim Bullock, a retired FDNY deputy chief and president of the New York Fire Safety Institute. “In a fireproof building, you leave only if the fire is in your apartment. If you’re close to the fire, you have to evaluate your situation. But the farther you are from the fire, you don’t want to leave the safety of your apartment” – which probably has a fireproof door – “and go into a smoke-filled environment.”
Annually under LL10, the landlord is supposed to give every apartment in every co-op, condo, rental, and dormitory a “fire safety notice” – a page of instructions to place on the back of each apartment door. Boards and managers can download the document as well as a two-part fire safety guide from the FDNY website (http://on.nyc.gov/1elna8H). For Part 1 of this guide, a board member – or, preferably, a fire safety consultant – fills out the cover page, listing the building’s fire exits and other specifics. It is then sent to residents along with the seven-page “Part 2 – Fire Emergency Information.”
“Every tenant gets one, and there’s also supposed to be one posted near the mailboxes,” says Global Security’s Papalia. “It says the type of construction and whether it’s fireproof or non-fireproof.”
Sounds simple. The problem? Experts say that landlords, boards, and others often fill out the first page incorrectly, and those mistakes carry forward year after year, as does outdated information. “I have found that 85 to 90 percent of the fire safety guides are incorrect or incomplete,” says Bullock, who has filled out “maybe 2,000 guides” as a consultant for buildings.
Also, not every board, manager, or landlord may remember to send them out every year. Nor are residents blameless. “People are not reading the guide,” adds Bullock. “I tell them, ‘Read your fire safety guide, it tells you exactly what to do.’” And even when they read it, they usually don’t put the notice up on their doors as required. “Owners of apartments are reluctant to put a 35-cent label on the back of a $2,000 mahogany door.”
So stricter compliance by boards and managers with existing law could go a long way. But during a blaze, fire experts say, people panic and need immediate information. How that gets to them – through internet-based, phone-based, or public-address systems in hallways and individual apartments – is the next issue.
And unless it’s addressed quickly, it may paradoxically cost lives. In the wake of the Strand fire, “There are co-op and condo buildings looking to do certain portions of what’s being done in new construction and commercial [buildings], such as putting in an annunciator system should the fire department need it when they come into a building,” says Doug Weinstein, director of operations and compliance at the management company Akam Associates. (An annunciator system is an intercom/alarm setup.)
Yet, at the same time, Weinstein adds: “Just the possibility of new local laws being passed that would dictate certain enhancements is making a lot of boards think, ‘Why should we do something on our own when the city may pass laws requiring something different?’ A building is not necessarily going to run out and do an enhancement now on the off chance that what they did does not comply.”
One proposal for a fire communication system, suggested by councilman Johnson, would make it mandatory for responders to be able to communicate directly with residents in residential buildings. “New York could set a national safety standard by requiring these emergency communications systems be put in place,” he says, pointing to the boom of ever-higher condominiums.
“I think it’s a good idea, but the budgetary part of it is always a factor,” says Don Einsidler, president of Einsidler Management. He’s been using Call-Em-All, one of a number of communication systems that autodial and even text residents’ phones. “That might be an inexpensive way that boards don’t have to install [a hard-wired] system,” he suggests. “You could create an instant broadcast wherever you are – the fire chief could do it from a laptop.”
He concedes that residents’ compliance is key, and that not everyone is willing to provide one or more of their phone numbers. And while such systems offer flexibility to communicate about issues other than fire safety – about hurricanes and meeting notices, for example – he warns that some boards might use them for other communications.
“I understand that cost is a concern for residents in co-op and condo buildings,” says Johnson. “But the emergency communication systems we’re proposing could save lives – there’s no question about it.”
In a commercial building, the tenants have a visit from a fire marshal every few months. He briefs them on the location of the fire exits, the appropriate steps to take in an emergency, and other important facts. A fire warden is appointed for each floor, and an intercom system (tested monthly) warns the occupants, “This is just a test of the fire safety equipment.” And then there are mandatory drills in which everyone walks down the stairs and evacuates the building.
Quite impressive, isn’t it? Now turn to a residential property. What kind of evacuation training do co-op and condo owners get? What is required by the city?
A 5½-by-8½-inch piece of paper and a booklet. That’s it.
The paper is a fire safety notice printed on a single-sided sheet. It offers advice on what to do in case of disaster. The law requires it to be “framed under a clear Plexiglas cover or laminated with a firm backing and [is] designed to be affixed by mounting hardware or an adhesive, or printed on a matte-finish vinyl adhesive-backed decal not less than three mils in thickness, thermal printing, screen printing, or other permanent, water-resistant printing technique.” It must be posted on the back of the main door of every apartment and in the common areas.
The building also must provide every inhabitant with a fire safety guide, which, says the law, “shall serve to inform occupants of the building, including building service employees, of the building’s construction, fire protection systems, means of egress, and evacuation and other procedures to be followed in the event of a fire.”
The guide has two parts: the first contains details about the building (which must be prepared by the owner or the owner’s representative), and the second about procedures and preparation for fire emergencies. For more details, visit: