NEW YORK, N.Y.— The best way to prevent tragedies like the Bronx fire that killed 17 people on January 9, would be a massive program to install fire sprinkler systems in older buildings, steamfitters and firefighters tell LaborPress.
“Unquestionably, sprinklers would save the most lives,” says Dan Mulligan, business manager of the Enterprise Association of Steamfitters, Local 638. “We’ve been advocating for this for years. We see things all the time because we’re in the industry, and we know it’s preventable with the work we do.”
“Automatic sprinkler systems actually put the fire out,” says Local 638 member Brian Hunt, whose work often includes installing fire-protection systems.
Under a 1999 city law, all new buildings constructed or substantially renovated since then have had to install sprinkler systems. A 2004 city law gave owners of office buildings at least 100 feet tall 15 years to retrofit them with sprinklers.
Twin Parks North West, the 19-story, 200-apartment building at 333 East 181st St. where the fire happened, was built in 1972 as part of a state affordable-housing program. It was privately owned, but rents on all apartments were publicly subsidized. It had sprinklers only in the compactor and laundry rooms.
Federal law has required all new public housing to have sprinklers since 1992, but virtually all of New York City’s public housing was built before then. All of the New York City Housing Authority’s more than 2,200 buildings have some kind of sprinkler system, the authority says, but in most of them, it’s only in the trash-compactor room. There are 480 buildings with sprinklers in the common areas, such as public hallways, and 15 that have them in individual apartments.
In the aftermath of the blaze, several Bronx elected officials, calling themselves the Bronx Fire Safety Task Force, have proposed legislation. City Councilmember Oswald Feliz’s bill would intensify city inspections of self-closing doors, whose failure at Twin Parks enabled lethal smoke to fill the halls and stairwells. A 2018 city law requires them in all buildings with three or more apartments, and if the landlord doesn’t fix a malfunctioning one after the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development issues a violation, HPD can make the repairs itself and bill the landlord.
Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), joined by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), is proposing a bill that would require heat sensors in all federally subsidized housing. That would detect inadequate heat in real time, instead of HPD issuing violations only after its inspectors visit the building and verify tenants’ complaints — and if that forced landlords to provide better heat, they say, people wouldn’t have to use space heaters to stay warm at the risk of starting a fire.
If those sensors send a signal that indicates fire-level increases in heat, that would help firefighters get there quicker, says former Fire Department deputy chief Richard Alles, who was also the Uniformed Fire Officials Association’s legislative director and is now head of 9/11 community affairs at the law firm Barasch & McGarry, which represents victims of the attacks.
“Seconds count. I’m not exaggerating,” he says.
All 17 people killed in the fire died of smoke inhalation. “It’s all about the smoke,” Alles says. Twin Parks, built of concrete, was structurally fireproof, so residents would’ve been safer staying in their apartments than trying to escape down the smoke-filled stairwells, as counterintuitive as that sounds.
“People in the stairwells were in an untenable position,” he says. If the self-closing doors had worked, “the building would have done exactly what it was designed to do.”
New York City has the most stringent building code in the country, but it’s not adequately enforced, Alles says: City inspectors should have detected the malfunctioning doors and forced the owner to fix them.
Department of Buildings records posted online show 21 violations issued at Twin Parks over the past 10 years, none for the doors, although the landlord was fined $1,250 in 2019 for having an expired fire extinguisher in the elevator. HPD told City&State that it had issued violations for defective self-closing doors there in 2017 and 2019, but that it generally doesn’t check individual apartment doors unless inspectors are there responding to the tenant’s complaint. After the fire, it issued six violations for “broken or defective” fire doors in apartments and one to “arrange and make self-closing the doors at north bulkhead.”
And if there had been a sprinkler system in the apartment where the fire started, Alles adds, it would have put the fire out — or at least controlled it to the point where “the volume of smoke would’ve been significantly reduced.”
Cost would be the main obstacle to large-scale sprinkler retrofitting. “Whenever these events occur, there’s all sorts of talk, but then reality sets in,” says Alles.
Ideally, there should be a sprinkler in every apartment, says Hunt, but the next best thing would be having them in common areas to prevent fires from spreading, and standpipes in stairwells so firefighters can pump water from inside the building.
Installing sprinklers in multiple apartments isn’t easy, says Mulligan, but you can run a standpipe that won’t be in an apartment, and mains down the hall.
Even having one sprinkler head by the doorway in every apartment “would prevent a lot of fires,” he says. That could be installed with about an hour’s work. It wouldn’t require prolonged access to the apartment, just popping a hole in from the hallway over the front door. A full system with seven or eight heads in the ceiling would be more complicated, as it would involve taking out walls to install pipes.
Mulligan estimates the cost at $3 to $6 per square foot. For a tenement-style five-story building 25 by 80 feet, that would work out to $30,000 to $60,000. For Twin Parks, which has a total floor area of about 125,000 square feet, it would be $375,000 to $750,000, or at most about $6,250 per apartment.
“I don’t see it putting anybody out of business,” he says.
Fire safety is personal for Mulligan: His niece was one of three college students killed in a house fire in Poughkeepsie in 2012. Local 638 donated $10,000 to Mayor Eric Adams’ relief fund for the victims of the Bronx fire, matched by another $10,000 from the Mechanical Contractors Association, a trade group of union-labor steamfitting contractors.
The union lobbied for the state law enacted in 2013 that requires colleges and universities to give written information on whether their housing facilities have sprinkler systems. In 2014, another law extended that requirement to all residential landlords.
Attempts to pass more sweeping legislation have been less successful. A bill introduced in 2018 by City Councilmember Barry Grodenchik (D-Queens) to have sprinklers installed in all residential buildings more than 40 feet tall within nine years never made it out of committee. Grodenchik refiled the measure on Dec. 31, his last day in the Council.
Retrofitting all pre-1999 buildings would be a massive undertaking. For public housing, where NYCHA oversees almost 180,000 apartments in 335 developments, it would take a Green New Deal-scale level of investment to put sprinklers in the halls of some 1,800 buildings and in the apartments of more than 2,200.
Still, says Alles, “I don’t think you can put a cost factor on safety.”
“Retrofitting existing buildings would be an extraordinary accomplishment,” he adds. “We could be a leader here.”