New Fire Code Requirements and Owner Responsibilities
In an exclusive interview with ALI, Noel Miller, Deputy Chief Inspector of the New York City Fire Department, explains what apartment building owners can do to avoid the most common fire code violations and how to comply with the new fire code requirements.
Deputy Chief Inspector Miller has been with New York City Fire Department's Bureau of Fire Prevention for 25 years. In 1999, Mr. Miller was assigned the duties of “Trainer” for all newly appointed Fire Inspectors in the Suppression Unit.
In 2003, he became the first supervisor of the newly created “Residential Sprinkler Unit.” In this position, Mr. Miller has been principally responsible for developing the citywide residential inspection and testing procedures for the unit.
Taking a More Proactive Stance
ALI: Please describe your official role as Deputy Chief Inspector.
NM: I am in charge of enforcing the fire code citywide for residential buildings. This includes buildings designated as R-2 buildings.
ALI: How are R-2 buildings different from J-2 buildings?
NM: J-2 and R-2 buildings are essentially the same. R-2 occupancy buildings are residential buildings with three or more dwelling units. The new fire code, which has been in effect since July 1, 2008, encompasses J-2 occupancies referred to in the building code.
ALI: With regard to apartment building owners, what problems do you encounter most often in your job?
NM: The most common problem is probably procrastination. Many owners will wait until the last minute to deal with violations.
For example, an owner might receive a letter from the Environmental Control Board about a violation—which prompts the owner to call my office for a copy of the violation. At this point, the request wastes the owner's time because my office does not provide copies of violations.
The violation has already been served on the owner, and he had either ignored it or forgotten about it by the time the letter arrived. This letter is a standard follow-up letter notifying owners that a violation has already been served upon them.
In addition to the procrastination problem, many owners will plead ignorance to the sprinkler and inspection requirements. Owners will claim that no city agency notified them of code changes or that their plumbers did not tell them of the new requirements. Oftentimes, an owner will become aware of the code requirements only when the inspector comes to inspect the property and leaves a violation.
Owners should read carefully any correspondences from city agencies and take the initiative to comply with and learn the code requirements.
Common Fire Safety Violations
ALI: In your experience, what are some of the most common violations owners face?
NM: Most often, we issue a violation to an owner for failing to perform basic sprinkler system maintenance—resulting in loose piping, sprinkler heads oriented in the wrong position, or paint clogging the sprinkler heads. Another common violation is for missing signs.
ALI: What does the inspection entail? What are the things a fire inspector will look for?
NM: An inspector's first concern is a building's fire safety. The inspector will examine any areas where there are sprinklers. However, he will only inspect public spaces and never private apartments. Sprinkler heads may be located in the basement, laundry rooms, hallways, and compactor rooms if an apartment building has six or more stories.
We will also check to see whether a record of maintenance has been kept. The monthly inspection log needs to be detailed, and it must itemize what the person has looked at—such as the status of sprinkler control valves, pressure gauge readings, and that there are no obstructions in the sprinkler heads and piping.
Aside from sprinklers, inspectors will also assess the accumulation of combustible materials in the common areas or basement. Building staircases should be clear of furniture or other equipment. If a building has a compactor room in the basement, the inspector will check that there is no grease or trash. There should be a functioning garden hose to wash out grease, and the trash should be bagged and ready to be taken out.
ALI: When and how often do Fire Department inspectors come to an owner's building?
NM: The law requires a flow test to be conducted on a sprinkler system every 30 months. This can be done by a licensed fire suppression contractor. For every other flow test or once every five years, an inspector will be there to witness it and to also witness a hydrostatic pressure test. The flow test ensures that an adequate amount of water sprays out of sprinkler heads, and the hydrostatic test makes sure that there is not any leakage in the system and that the siamese connections to which the firefighters hook up their hoses operate properly.
It is at these tests that the inspector looks for possible violations. However, if your building is not registered with the appropriate agencies, an inspector might just show up.
ALI: How often do you discover unregistered residential sprinkler systems?
NM: The database is updated every day. Buildings that we didn't even know about are added to it constantly. Thankfully, when a sprinkler system is installed in a new building in the city, owners generally come to us. They'll send in plumbing reports or approval requests for the sprinkler system, and then we make sure everything is functioning properly.
However, there are instances when this information isn't provided to us. These owners should be aware that at some point in the future, the Fire Department will get there. We might get a referral from a local fire company, or we might just show up after finishing up an inspection next door or in the area. For owners that haven't filed anything with us, I highly recommend immediately processing the necessary paperwork. Building safety and fire code compliance are in everyone's best interest. People's lives are at stake.
Fire Safety Plans, Proper Signage
ALI: You mentioned missing signs earlier as a common violation. Please elaborate.
NM: For buildings with sprinklers, signs are required to identify the type of control valves the building uses and where they are located. Additionally, whether or not the building has a sprinkler system, the owner must have a fire safety plan and a notice posted in the lobby area where tenants can see them.
The residential fire safety plan informs tenants and building service employees about the building's fire safety systems, means of egress, and evacuation and other procedures to be followed in the event of a fire. The plan must be revised within 60 days of any material change in the building's fire safety systems, means of egress, or other building condition required to be included in the plan.
ALI: What are some of the requirements for buildings with fire escapes?
NM: The fire escape must not have anything stored on it. Nothing must obstruct the path from an apartment to the fire escape.
ALI: If a tenant puts something onto the fire escape, is it still the owner's responsibility to make sure the fire escape is clear?
NM: Yes. And this problem isn't limited to the fire escape. We find that tenants cause obstructions in the interior spaces as well. For example, a tenant might want to store his bicycle near the stair landing.
Sometimes it's discretionary how we handle this violation. Generally, we give the violation to the owner. But in some rare situations, a tenant may be very unresponsive to the owner. In these cases, the owner himself might make a complaint to us, and we can legally cite the tenant and tell him to stop storing his goods in the stairwell or other common area, and the tenant will be responsible for clearing out his stuff.
But it's important to note that we only cite the tenants directly if we are sure the owner has tried everything before reporting the problem to us.
ALI: In these situations, what Fire Department unit should an owner contact if he has done everything in his power to get the tenant to remove the fire hazard, but the tenant still does not comply?
NM: It depends on the building, but most often the complaint will come to the Suppression Unit.
Changes in the New Fire Code
ALI: Is there anything in the new fire code that owners should be aware of?
NM: The biggest change that applies to apartment owners is the steps the owner must go through to fix a major defect in the sprinkler system. If we find a major defect in an apartment building's sprinkler system—such as a defective siamese connection that prevents fire trucks from being able to hook up to the water supply, closed valves, or busted pipes in one area—owners must now comply with more stringent requirements.
Under the old code, owners were required to notify the Fire Department that the system was out of service, and they were required to restore the system as soon as possible. Now, in case of a major defect, an owner must designate an “impairment coordinator.”
Next, the owner immediately must make provisions to have a 24-hour fire guard in the building. A fire guard is someone with a certificate of fitness whose sole duty is to watch for fires until the system is restored. This person could be another employee with a certificate of fitness or an outside contractor.
The next step is to notify the building's insurer that the system is out of service. Then, the owner must notify the tenants affected by the service failure with an estimate of how long the problem will take to fix. The owner must also tag every location where the defect affects the system and tag the siamese connection so the Fire Department is aware of the faulty connection in case an emergency occurs.
ALI: Are there any special qualifications for the impairment coordinator?
NM: It's a cap that anyone can wear right now. An impairment coordinator could be the owner himself or the building's superintendent. He should be familiar with the building's fire system.
ALI: This is a big change from the way the code addressed major defects previously.
NM: Definitely. It's in the owner's interest to fix the problem as quickly as possible. The steps are clearer now, and they provide a financial incentive to comply—especially since insurers and tenants are involved.
Last Words of Advice for Owners
ALI:Thanks for speaking with us, Inspector Miller. Do you have any last words of advice for our readers?
NM:I want to emphasize that owners should read correspondences from city agencies carefully and take an active role in educating themselves about their responsibilities. For example, in May 2007, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) sent letters to owners in its database notifying them that effective immediately, they were no longer to send their sprinkler test reports to HPD and that the Fire Department was now responsible for them. I find that many owners ignored this letter. One owner last month told us that he had just received the letter that was mailed more than 12 months ago.
Finally, many owners think that by contracting out the monthly inspection services their duties are over. It's important that they give their monthly inspection contractor access to the building. If we find that a monthly inspection report was not signed for two months, we will write up the owner for a violation. When owners do not provide access, some contractors will inform us to protect their license.
Bureau of Fire Prevention Statistics for FY 2008
Number of Inspections 160,866
Number of Fire Protection Inspectors 184
Revenue ($ millions) $47.1
Notice of Violations (NOV) issued 34,119
Top 5 Causes of Fires Investigated by Bureau
Open Flame (match, candle, etc.) 399
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