City Council Seeks to Strengthen Fire Safety Rules

At a recent City Council hearing, councilmembers questioned fire and housing department leaders on the city’s safety inspections of residential buildings in the wake of a January fire at a high-rise in the Bronx that left 17 people dead. The Bronx apartment building fire, the city's deadliest in decades, has prompted much attention and proposed legislation from councilmembers.

At a recent City Council hearing, councilmembers questioned fire and housing department leaders on the city’s safety inspections of residential buildings in the wake of a January fire at a high-rise in the Bronx that left 17 people dead. The Bronx apartment building fire, the city's deadliest in decades, has prompted much attention and proposed legislation from councilmembers.

All the victims, including eight children, were determined to have died from smoke inhalation. The New York Fire Department reported that the fire was caused by a malfunctioning space heater in one unit and smoke had spread throughout the building. The Department has identified malfunctioning self-closing doors as a key factor in the loss of life and significant building damage. According to New York City Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro, “As [residents] left, they opened the door, and the door stayed open,” allowing smoke to travel throughout the building and creating deadly conditions.

New York Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) had issued at least two violation notices for faulty self-closing doors at the property in 2017 and 2019, but no self-closing door infractions had been issued to the high-rise since those violations were corrected. Self-closing doors are required in all residential buildings in New York City as part of the New York City Housing Maintenance Code. More than 22,000 self-closing door violation notices were issued throughout the city for other properties in the 2021 fiscal year.

The joint hearing of several council committees questioned FDNY and HPD officials on the scope and efficiency of their safety inspections and sought their positions on the proposed legislation. Generally, the officials said they supported or had no position on much of the legislation. The proposed bills range from reducing the time for an owner to correct a self-closing door violation to raising minimum nighttime temperatures during the winter.

Proposed Legislation

The City Council hasn’t scheduled a vote on the proposed legislation. Here are the proposed bills:

Reducing time to correct self-closing door violation (Int 0105-2022). This bill would reduce the amount of time for a landlord to correct a violation to keep or maintain self-closing doors from 21 days to 14 days. Once the 14-day window has run, it also requires inspection by the HPD within 20 days, regardless of whether the owner has submitted a certification of correction.

It also establishes a civil penalty range of $250 to $500 for a violation of the self-closing door requirement. It would also increase civil penalties for false certification of correction of class B and class C violations of the Housing Maintenance Code. Finally, this bill would clarify that all doors providing access to interior corridors or stairs in R-1 and R-2 occupancy groups must be self-closing or equipped with a device that will ensure such doors close shut and are latched.

Ban sale of portable space heaters without safety features (Int 0106-2022). This bill would prohibit the sale of electric space heaters without certain safety features; specifically, requiring all such devices for sale to be equipped with a thermostat, an automatic function that disables the device upon tip-over or overheating, and be certified by a nationally recognized testing laboratory.

Increase minimum temperatures during heat season (Int 0115-2022). During heating season, between Oct. 1 and May 31, owners of residential buildings who are required to provide heat for their tenants must maintain certain minimum temperatures in areas of dwelling units that are used or occupied for living purposes. This bill would increase the minimum daytime (between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.) temperature during heating season from 68 degrees to 70 degrees, and it would increase the nighttime (between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.) temperature from 62 degrees to 66 degrees.

Residential education and outreach (Int 0131-2022). This bill would amend current requirements relating to the Fire Department’s efforts to conduct fire safety education and outreach for residential buildings, by requiring that such activities include dissemination of relevant information pertaining to the safe operations of electric space heaters in residential settings. Additionally, any fire safety-related written materials distributed by the Fire Department would be required to be produced in the top 10 most commonly spoken languages in the city.

Filing fee waiver for fire damage repair (Int 0155-2022). This bill would require the Commissioner of Buildings to waive the filing fee for a permit to alter a one-, two-, or three-family home when the dwelling has been damaged by fire for work to repair damage from the fire and any construction defects discovered following the fire. The bill would also require the Department of Buildings to conduct outreach on the waiver in the designated citywide languages.

Basement carbon monoxide detectors (Int 0156-2022). This bill would require that all multifamily apartment buildings install carbon monoxide detecting devices in basement common areas, except those areas regularly used for access to or egress from a dwelling unit.

Self-closing door inspections (Int 0208-2022). This bill would require HPD to inspect self-closing doors in a building’s common areas at least once every two years. It would require HPD to notify the building owner immediately of any self-closing door violation, and require that a building owner immediately take action to correct such violation. If such inspection reveals any immediately hazardous violation, HPD would conduct a re-inspection of the building after the building owner notifies HPD that such violation has been corrected or after 90 days since the agency identified the violation, whichever occurs first.

Where a tenant or occupant of a residential building requests an inspection for an alleged violation, this bill would require that HPD inspect the immediate floor for self-closing door violations. If HPD discovers a violation, the agency would inspect all other common areas in the building to confirm any additional self-closing door violations.

Staffing Shortages at HPD

During the hearing, AnnMarie Santiago, a deputy commissioner for HPD, said she had concerns about reducing the amount of time a landlord has to fix a violation related to self-closing doors. Her testimony also put a spotlight on staffing shortages at HPD. Int. 0105, sponsored by Councilmember Oswald Feliz (D-Bronx), would require buildings to fix broken safety doors within 14 days after an inspector discovers the problem. Under current rules, the doors must be fixed within 21 days. To enforce that rule, HPD inspectors would be required to recheck the doors within 21 days after the end of a 14-day correction period. Santiago said that the reduced time might be enough to find a contractor and schedule a maintenance time with a tenant, and could take HPD inspectors away from more immediately life-threatening issues.

HPD has lost more than a third of its inspection force and HPD hopes to staff up in anticipation of the new safety rules. HPD is budgeted to have 367 inspectors. However, the agency is trying to fill 131 vacancies. The agency lost more than 100 inspectors over the past few years through retirements and general attrition, Santiago said. Many inspectors also changed jobs and moved away during the pandemic.

During the hearing, Santiago said the wait time for an inspection of heat and hot water complaints as well as other building issues in the 170,000 multi-unit buildings in the city they’re responsible for is about two and a half days. Councilmember Oswald Feliz, chair of a special committee on fire prevention formed after the Bronx fire, and a former tenant lawyer, said HPD needed to improve its average time to respond to heat violations. “I think that timeline is problematic,” Feliz said. “Our weather changes rapidly.” And several councilmembers said they wanted to see HPD increase its random inspections of buildings, and move away from a complaint-driven response.