New York City Fire Fatalities Rise 35% in 2017: Stricter Fire Sprinkler Laws Needed

New York City Fire Fatalities Rise 35% in 2017

While 2016 was the Big Apple’s safest year in terms of fire fatalities, 2017 experienced a 35% spike, increasing from 48 fire deaths to 73 in the year just concluded.

The 2016 low corresponded with a decades-long trend than can be largely attributed to an increase in fire sprinkler system installations, as New York City regulations have consistently expanded requirements for sprinklers. (See Graphic B)

According to the FDNY, 26 of New York’s fire fatalities in 2017 were in the month of December. This included a Dec. 28 fire that killed 13 people in a building in the Bronx, the deadliest fire in New York City in 27 years. That tragic event served as a reminder that more must be done to protect those living in buildings built prior to 1999.

It was in that year, 1999, after four people were killed in a wealthy apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, that the city enacted Local Law 10, which required all newly constructed residential apartment buildings with four or more units – later updated to three units – be protected with automatic fire sprinkler systems.

At that time, existing residential high-rise buildings remained exempt.

Announcing the 2017 rise in fatal fires over the previous record low, FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said:

“While we have worked very hard in recent years to educate millions of New Yorkers about fire safety, several recent tragedies demonstrate our work is far from over and we must do all we can to reach everyone with vital, life-saving knowledge about how to prevent fires and what to do if you’re in a fire situation. We mourn the loss of every life lost due to fire, and we commit to doing even more to make 2018 a safer year for everyone in our city.”

New York City is further along than many in fire protection requirements, but fire safety remains a stark example of inequity in our city.

The existing laws protect occupants of newer, more modern and in many cases more affluent buildings. In contrast, residents of many older buildings, remain without adequate protections such as fire sprinklers.

“The unfortunate reality is that no matter how effectively FDNY firefighters continue to do their jobs, it is clear that New York City still has a long way to go in protecting all residents with fire sprinklers,” said Anthony Saporito, Executive Vice President of Mechanical Contractors Association of New York. “New York City has historically acted to improve fire codes and public safety laws following disasters such as the Happy Land Social Club fire in 1990 and the Deutsche Bank fire in 2007. After experiencing this spike in 2017, and 26 fire fatalities in December alone, it is time for a closer look at protecting tenants in older, unsprinklered buildings.”

In a report published this past July by the National Fire Protection Association, from 2010-2014, the death rate per 1,000 reported fires was 87% lower in properties with fire sprinklers than in properties with no automatic extinguishing systems. In addition, where sprinklers were present, flame damage was confined to the room of origin in 97% of fires.

“As seen in the Bronx, apartment fires can quickly escalate, and when trapped, a victim has a limited time to evacuate,” said Patrick Dolan, Steamfitters Local 638 President. “Fire sprinklers provide victims with valuable, life-saving seconds to escape harm, which can be the difference between life and death.

Fire Sprinklers are a century-old, proven technology that can completely extinguish fires before they grow out of control.”

Modern residential fires grow hotter, more toxic and burn 800 percent faster than they did just 40 years ago. When installed and properly maintained, fire sprinklers are the first line of defense, controlling 99 percent of all fires.

“New York has always been a national leader in fire safety by continually improving safety requirements with each passing generation. There are thousands of older residential buildings, including public housing that are exempted from current municipal fire sprinkler regulations. Do those tenants have any less rights than residents of modern buildings equipped with fire sprinklers?” said Robert Bartels, Jr., Steamfitters Local 638 Business Agent at Large. “We know fire sprinklers save lives and no one should be denied of that protection. What is safe for a building constructed in 2017 should be safe for a building built in 1950, and regulations should cover residents in both cases.”

SUMMARY OF NEW YORK CITY

SPRINKLER LAWS HISTORY

Local Law 5 of 1973 (LL 5/73) – Required existing high-rise office buildings 100 feet or more in height to be equipped with a sprinkler system, or, in lieu of a sprinkler system, compartmentation with stair pressurization. For sprinkler system installations, sprinkler protection was permitted to be omitted from certain areas in accordance with departmental directives and interpretations. 40th Anniversary is January 18, 2013.

Local Law 41 of 1978 – Following a fire at the Blue Angel nightclub, law strengthened sprinkler provisions for places of public assembly, and a requirement that sprinklers be retroactively installed in existing nightclubs.

Local Law 16 of 1984 (LL 16/84) – Amended the building code to require all new office buildings over 75 feet in height to be protected throughout by an automatic sprinkler system, and did not provide the same exemptions permitted for LL 5/73 compliance. LL 16/84 did not retroactively mandate sprinklers for existing buildings.

Local Law 55 of 1989 – Required individuals installing and modifying fire sprinkler systems to be licensed by the City of New York. This law coincides with the city’s sharpest one-year drop in fire deaths (from 296 in 1990 to 187 in 1991), with a continuous drop in fire fatalities ever since.

Local Law 10 of 1999 – New York City Local Law 10 was enacted in March of 1999, mandating that all newly constructed multifamily dwellings with 3 or more units must be fully protected by fire sprinklers. For existing buildings, sprinklers have to be installed: as renovations, or as alterations with costs if renovations or alterations total more than 50 percent of the value of the building. (This was a result of a fire on December 23, 1998 at 124 W 60th Street – 4 deaths – aka the Macaulay Culkin Fire) – Also December 18, 1998 – 3 Firefighter deaths Dec 18 – aspects of the law also established stricter inspection and maintenance standards.

Local Law 26 of 2002 – After the tragic death of 3 firefighters on Father’s Day 2001, this law was enacted to require automatic fire sprinklers in mercantile occupancies which contain below grade storage of flammable or combustible mixtures.

Local Law 26 of 2004 – Was enacted after a 2003, the World Trade Center Building Code Task Force found that compartmentation and smoke alarms do not provide the same level of protection as a full automatic sprinkler system and recommended automatic sprinkler protection throughout all high-rise office buildings. As a result, Local Law 26 of 2004 (LL 26/04) amended Building Code sections 27-228.5 and 27-929.1 to retroactively require sprinkler protection for existing office buildings measuring 100 feet or more in height by July 1, 2019. Per section 27-929.1(a)(3), these requirements do not apply to a building in existence on October 22, 2004 in which a full system of automatic sprinklers was installed or required to be installed pursuant to any other provision of law (i.e. LL5/73 or LL16/84).

Local Law 58 of 2009Exposed sprinkler and standpipe piping systems must be painted red. Combination standpipe valve handles must be painted yellow and dedicated sprinkler valve handles must be painted green. All buildings – no matter the size or occupancy – must comply with these new requirements.

Local Law 60 of 2009The law requires a permit for cutting and capping. Only licensed master fire suppression piping contractors or licensed master plumbers may cut or cap standpipes or sprinklers during demolition.

Local Law 63 of 2009This law requires hydrostatic pressure testing of standpipes, performed by a licensed master fire suppression contractor or licensed plumber, be done before removing building stories. The law also requires an initial hydrostatic pressure test for new buildings under construction once the building reaches 75 feet in height with additional tests every 100 feet thereafter. For existing standpipe systems that are being enlarged, a hydrostatic pressure test is required at every 75 feet in height added to the system.

Local Law 64 of 2009The law requires standpipes to have pressurized alarm systems.

Local Law 78 of 2015This law requires all facilities, animal hospitals, kennels, pounds, veterinary clinics and pet shops where animals are sheltered on a 24 hour basis to be protected by an automatic fire sprinkler system.

Featured image c/o Bob Vila

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