Experts Condemn Many Cities' Fire Codes
Friday, March 16, 2007; 6:30 AM
NEW YORK -- Fire fatalities have steadily declined in the U.S. since the late 1970s, thanks partly to improved building codes requiring safety measures such as sprinkler systems, multiple fire exits and fire-resistant construction materials.
But a deadly blaze in the Bronx served as a ghastly reminder that many of the country's big cities are packed with homes that have none of these safety features.
The March 7 inferno claimed 10 lives when flames ignited by a space heater ripped through a century-old town house inhabited by two immigrant families from West Africa.
Investigators sifting through the ashes found a bunch of things they wish had been different about the building.
The three-story house lacked a fire escape and had only one stairwell, giving residents no way out once those steps were blocked by flames. There were no sprinklers. The house had only two smoke detectors, neither of which had working batteries or was hard-wired to the electrical system.
The modest home also was crowded with 22 residents, most of them children.
And yet, none of those deficiencies appeared to violate the city's building code.
As is the case in most cities, one- and two-family homes in New York are more lightly regulated than larger dwellings. At the doomed Bronx house, neither a sprinkler system nor a fire escape was required, city officials said.
There are thousands of homes just like it throughout the city, building experts said Wednesday.
"In most cities, there will be a stock of buildings that don't meet the current standards, and they are accidents waiting to happen," said Richard Custer, a fire safety expert at Arup, a global design firm. "The problem is, a lot of owners don't want to spend the money to bring these things up to speed."
That wasn't the case in the Bronx.
Homeowner Moussa Magassa had recently filed an application with the city to divide his house into three apartments and install sprinklers and a metal fire stairwell. The project had yet to be approved at the time of the fire.