Frank Lovece in Legal/Financial on April 15, 2014
The Wait-and-See Waltz
Following the Jan. 5 fire at the Hell's Kitchen high-rise The Strand, "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 enunciator system on each floor, with speakers, so there's a means of communication 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 Living Services.
However, he cautions, "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 in the off chance that what they did does not comply."
The most prominent proposal for a fire-communication system, that of City Council member Corey Johnson (D - District 3), would mandate some method for responders to communicate directly with residents. "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 "in a city that can only grow upward." A direct communication system for responders "is an important step in making sure when we go home, we're safe."
Don't Forget the Deaf
This is true — but only if there's also a non-audio component for the hard-of-hearing, notes Gary Mindlin, co-op board president of 150 West End in Manhattan's Lincoln Towers complex. That's a not-inconsiderable concern in a city where more and more residents are aging in place. "We have a situation with elderly people who can't hear well," he says. "One lady in a meeting told me, 'If my hearing aid isn't in, you could bang on the door all you want and I won't hear.'"
"I think [fire-communication systems are] 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 can 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. As well, he warns, while such systems offer flexibility to communicate about issues other than fire-safety — snowstorms, hurricanes, meeting notices — some boards might use them for political robocalls.
"I understand that cost is a concern for residents in co-op and condo buildings," says Councilmember Johnson. "But the emergency communication systems we're proposing could save lives — there's no question about it."
And that may override all other concerns. "This isn't like where you've got do something to your water tank," says Weinstein. "This is obviously a life-safety issue. Yes, in some buildings it may be a financial hardship," he knows. "But it's also about life and death," he says, "and that will take precedence over most financial issues."
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