Where There’s Smoke …
Developing Sound Fire-Safety Policies
By Keith Loria
In January, a couple was caught in an apartment fire at the Strand Condominium on West 43rd Street in Manhattan. One person died, and the other suffered serious smoke inhalation. The tragic situation could have been even worse; other residents complained afterward that they were confused about what to do in the case of a fire in their building.
Sadly, according to a spokesperson at the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), this is not an uncommon occurrence when major fires break out in multifamily buildings. It’s not so much that those in charge don’t have a set of emergency plans in place, but that those plans are often not adequately communicated with residents.
Improved smoke alarms, mandatory sprinkler systems, and cutting-edge, flame-resistant building materials have all helped to reduce the frequency of deadly apartment fires in the last few decades, but fires do still happen. And whether they’re minor blazes in private kitchens or four-alarm infernos like the one at the Strand, the main concern of anyone in any building is to get themselves, their families and their neighbors out safely.
According to the FDNY, the top five causes of accidental fires are electrical, smoking-related, faulty appliances, careless cooking, and open flames such as candles or matches that get out of hand. Carmelo Milio, director of property management for Trion Real Estate Management in Yonkers says that in addition to the big five that the FDNY lists, space heaters and linty dryer vents are also big fire hazards in condos.
Because of these risks, “In the New York City metro area, we are required to install carbon monoxide and smoke detectors in all dwelling units,” he says. “All residents should always have a fire extinguisher and operating smoke detector in their unit.”
Georgia Lombardo-Barton, president of Manhattan-based Barton Management LLC, says that because overheating or obstructed electrical cords are the number-one source of co-op or condo fires, it’s far safer to plug cords directly into outlets, rather than using extension cords or multi-cord outlet expanders.
“Residents shouldn’t use extension cords for hair dryers, fans, or large appliances. Rather, use extension cords or multiple outlet extensions for powering a computer or charging a phone,” Lombardo-Barton says. “Keeping an apartment clutter free, especially near outlets and kitchen areas, is another form of fire prevention. If a fire starts in any location in the apartment, it will feed on clutter and continue to spread. This situation will only impede firefighters from controlling the fire and can spread it to neighboring units.”
Lombardo-Barton adds that management should also contact social services or next-of-kin if certain residents demonstrate hording tendencies, as this type of situation vastly increases both the risk of fire and the damage it can cause to life and property.
A Plan in Place
Enid Hamelin, director of Manhattan-based management firm Halstead Lawrence Properties, says that because of the Strand fire, new legislation is in the works to make stricter mandatory rules regarding evacuation planning and communication but nothing is firm at this time. What is in place is a rule that requires fire evacuation rules to be posted conspicuously in the building.
“What saves people’s lives is reading the instructions that are laid out,” Hamelin says. “If a managing agent should do anything, it’s to make sure that the literature is distributed and indicate how important it is to read it.”
This is not to say that there aren’t any laws covering fire safety. In 1999, the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums (CNYC) helped enact Local Law 10, which required the Fire Commissioner to promote rules regarding fire safety plans and notification. Rule 3 RCNY Section 43-01 took effect more than a decade ago and it provides detailed instructions and…