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CO-OP/CONDO BUYERS

WHAT CO-OP/CONDO BUYERS NEED TO KNOW

Fire in the Hall: What Boards Don't Know About Fire Safety Can Kill People

Frank Lovece in Co-op/Condo Buyers on April 3, 2014

New York City, The Strand, Lincoln Towers

NIST Fire Research Division engineers using an abandoned New York City brick high-rise as a seven-story fire laboratory. US government image.
April 3, 2014

"You start to panic and think, 'I gotta get the hell out of the building,' and start running down the stairs," says former FDNY lieutenant Frank Papalia, head of the Fire Safety Directors division of 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."

As much as it was the fire, heat, and smoke, it was a lack of communication that killed Daniel McClung.

The Office

So why don't residential buildings have fire-safety requirements as stringent as those for  office buildings? "I believe it was easier for the city to regulate commercial and hotel building-safety standards," says City Council member Corey Johnson (D - District 3), 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, 'Here are the rules and what to do in case of a fire,'" says Gary Mindlin, co-op board president of 150 West End Ave. in Manhattan's Lincoln Towers complex, who also has a management perspective as owner of Top Hat Home Services, which 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, aren't required to attend.

Proof Reading 

The basics: 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, using materials like brick, poured concrete, and metal rather studs 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

However, he adds, "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," Bullock cautions. "But the further you are from the fire, [the less you] want to leave the safety of your apartment" — with its fireproof door — "and go into a smoke-filled environment." 

Getting the Guide

But the thing is, according to New York City law, this information is supposed to be given to every apartment in every co-op, every condo, every rental building and ever dormitory every year — including a page you stick to the back of each apartment door.

"It's called the Fire Safety Guide, and it's mailed out either in October during Fire Prevention Week or in January with the [City's requisite] window-guard notice," says Bullock. Co-op / condo boards and managers download the three-part document from the "Residential Fire Safety Guide and Notices" page of the FDNY website. You — or, preferably, a fire-safety consultant — fill out the cover page, listings your building's fire exits and other specifics. You then you send it to residents along with the seven-page "Part II – Fire Emergency Information" and, depending on whether you're in a "Combustible" or a "Non-Combustible" building, the corresponding one-page "Fire Safety Notice." It's all right there.

"Every tenant gets one and there's also supposed to be one posted near the mailboxes," says Papalia. "It says the type of construction and whether its fireproof or non-fireproof." 

Sounds simple. The problem? According to Bullock — who as a consultant has filled out "maybe 2,000 guides" for buildings —  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," he says. 

As well, not every board, manager or landlord may remember to send them out every year. Nor are residents blameless. "People are not reading the Guide," he says. "I tell them, 'Read your Fire Safety Guide — it tells you exactly what to do.'" And even when they read the guide, they usually don't put the notice up on their doors as required. "Owners of apartments are reluctant," he says, "to put a 35-cent label on the back of a $2,000 mahogany door."   

 

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Photo: NIST.gov

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