In one week in early January, two horrific multifamily building fires grabbed national headlines. Flames tore through a row home converted into apartments in Philadelphia on the morning of January 5th, killing twelve people, nine of them children. A high-rise apartment fire in the Bronx killed 17 people and left 32 others with life-threatening injuries just four days later. Both tragic fires were among the worst the United States has seen in four decades. The circumstances behind both fires were different, but they shared striking similarities. Inoperable smoke alarms, a defective space heater, and low-income tenants placed in dangerous conditions led to these fatal outcomes.
In Philadelphia, authorities are all but certain the fire started with a Christmas tree set ablaze. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported a five-year-old boy, who escaped, told authorities he accidentally started the fire while playing with a lighter. After the fire, investigators found seven smoke alarms in the two-unit building, but they’d all been disabled. Four were scattered in drawers, one was on the floor with its batteries removed, and another was attached to the ceiling but had no batteries either. The only working alarm was in the basement, but the warning came too late by the time it blared. The multifamily dwelling was owned by the federally-funded Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), which said that all the smoke alarms were working when they inspected the place in May 2021.
The Philly fire underscores the need for basic safety measures like working smoke alarms. The risk of dying in a residential building fire is 55 percent lower in homes with working smoke alarms than those without them, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Battery-powered smoke alarms are usually good enough, but hard-wired ones offer superior protection. Power source issues are the most common causes of smoke alarms failing to work. It’s likely the tenants had taken the batteries out of the alarms, perhaps annoyed by them while cooking, but hard-wired ones would not have allowed the tenants to disable them. In addition, hard-wired alarms offer more protection during a fire. The NFPA reports that 94 percent of hard-wired alarms operate in fires large enough to trigger them compared to 82 percent of battery-powered alarms.
Adding fire sprinklers to homes is another way for buildings to mitigate the risk of a serious structure fire. Fire sprinklers control 97 percent of home fires, and the risk of dying in a home fire is reduced by 85 percent when sprinklers are installed, according to NFPA. The City of Philadelphia reported in a 2018 blog post that nearly 5,000 one and two-family homes in the city had fire sprinklers installed. The Philly Fire Department wrote that it hoped more residents would install them.
Public education about basic fire safety like smoke alarms and sprinklers can sometimes fall on deaf ears, but the recent tragedy in Philly shows why it’s so vital. We can often be dazzled by high-tech smart home gadgets. We have been sold on the convenience of the internet of things but we have forgotten how important safety features like smoke or carbon dioxide sensors are to our homes. No one gets excited about a connected smoke detector, but maybe that should change.
The lack of basic fire safety measures was also a factor in the Bronx fire that happened on January 9th. Investigators determined that just before 11 a.m., a defective space heater that had been left on burst into flames and ignited a mattress. While the fire immediately triggered the smoke alarms, the tenants in the 19-story building were used to false alarms, so some people ignored it.
Smoke spread through the building because of two malfunctioning self-closing doors, which was the primary cause of so much death and destruction. Though the fire was primarily confined to one apartment, all of the people who died did so by smoke inhalation. Self-closing fire doors are often standard on many commercial buildings but are often neglected and unmaintained. Plus, just like smoke detectors, tenants can tamper with them, open them, or block them altogether for the sake of convenience. What’s worse, the complex didn’t have fire escapes, and some people couldn’t evacuate via the stairwells because of the volume of smoke. Officials said the smoke extended the entire height of the building, something “completely unusual.”
It’s easy to blame the tenants in the Philly and Bronx fires. In Philly, it appears the tenants had disabled their own smoke alarms. A defective space heater was being used for a prolonged period in the Bronx, an obvious fire safety no-no. Officials in New York have also blamed tenants for not closing their doors, allowing the smoke to spread so quickly. But if you take a step back, there are signs of neglect and housing injustice in both of the fatal fires. In Philadelphia, a multigenerational family was crammed into the two apartment units, with 26 people living in one unit.
Authorities questioned why so many people were stacked in such cramped quarters, though Philly Mayor Jim Kenney said sometimes that’s better than being out on the street. Perhaps the two units were so crowded because of how difficult it is to secure subsidized housing in Philadelphia. The building was owned by the Philly Housing Authority (PHA), which claims to be the largest landlord in Pennsylvania and controls an enormous stock of rowhomes that were once privately owned. PHA also has a notorious waiting list to get in its homes, with about 40,000 people currently on the list that’s been closed for five years. The demand for housing assistance is so much greater than the supply that some eligible families are on the waiting list for sometimes years. In Philadelphia, it’s estimated that about 6,900 people are in the city’s homeless system, and an additional 1,000 people are living on the streets, according to SELF Inc., an emergency housing services provider in Philly. If you take all this into context, Mayor Kenney’s comments make a little more sense. Why not live in cramped quarters with relatives that could perhaps be a little dangerous when the alternative is a homeless shelter or the city streets in frigid January?
A need for adequate heat?
In the Bronx, housing injustice rears its ugly head in the fire, too. Even though a space heater caused the fire, the supplemental heat may have been necessary for many tenants. Tenants said cold indoor temperatures were frequent and many people in the building resorted to using space heaters. The building had logged three heating-related complaints in 2021, though none were active at the time. NYC housing law requires landlords to maintain indoor temperatures of at least 68 degrees during the day, but it’s unclear how many landlords do. A 2017 housing survey revealed that nearly 27 percent of households in the Fordham neighborhood of the Bronx, where the fire was, used supplemental heat sources like space heaters. The building owners now face significant liability for the fire, which survivors have said was preventable and caused by negligence. On January 12th, the survivors of the blaze filed a class-action lawsuit against the three owners of the complex, seeking up to $3 billion in damages.
Early January was a tragic start to 2022 with these multifamily building fires in the Northeast. The Bronx high-rise fire was the third-worst residential fire in America in four decades in terms of fatalities and the deadliest fire in NYC since 1990. The fire in Philly was also historically fatal, claiming 12 lives. Usually, residential fires of this magnitude lead to fire and building codes changes. Perhaps in Philadelphia, educating tenants about the importance of smoke alarms will become more prevalent. The housing authority there may also consider installing hard-wired smoke alarms, which are more reliable than battery-powered ones, and sprinkler systems that significantly reduce the chance of fire deaths. Both the Bronx and Philly fires involved lapses in basic fire safety measures, but we shouldn’t place all the blame on the tenants. Adequate heating in the Bronx may have meant less reliance on space heaters, the cause of the blaze. One lesson from these tragedies is that fires might be uncommon, but a combination of weak fire safety protocols and dangerous housing conditions can turn deadly fast.