Tragic Bronx Fire Compels Review of Fire Safety Requirements
We’ll run down the requirements for self-closing doors, smoke and CO detectors, fire escapes, stove knob covers—and all the related notices.
On Jan. 9, a fatal blaze began in a Bronx apartment unit, escaped an open door, and spread through the 19-story building. The fire killed 17 people including eight children in what is the city’s largest loss of life from a single fire in 30 years.
The fire was most likely started by a portable heater, and its danger was exacerbated by a door that was left open and didn’t close by itself, according to statements made by NYC Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro at a news conference.
An open door provides a source of air to a fire. And closing doors limits the spread of smoke and oxygen available for combustion. According to city officials, the victims died of smoke inhalation, and a door that failed to close accelerated the fire’s spread. “As they left, they opened the door, and the door stayed open,” stated Commissioner Nigro. “The stairwell was very dangerous as the door was left open and some of the floors—certainly on 15—the door was open from the stairs to the hall, and the 15th floor became quite untenable.”
In the fire’s aftermath, two survivors have filed the first lawsuit against the building’s owners and the city. They’re seeking $1 billion in compensatory damages for themselves and other victims of the fire and $2 billion in collective punitive damages for the victims. The lawsuit alleges the owner was negligent in responding to safety defects and that the city failed to ensure that the owners provided self-closing doors as required by city law.
This tragic fire is a reminder to owners and tenants of the importance of fire safety. We’ll take a closer look at fire-safety-related requirements imposed on owners.
In 2018, the New York City Council passed a law that requires a building with three or more apartments to have self-closing doors. The law’s language requires all doors leading to interior stairways or corridors to be self-closing by July 2021. The legislation was enacted in response to a 2017 fire at a Bronx building that killed nine people. According to HPD, the agency issued more than 22,000 violations last fiscal year for malfunctioning self-closing doors and 18,000 have been corrected.
Notices for stairwell doors. In addition to this requirement, Local Law 115 of 2019 requires owners to post a notice in conspicuous locations indicating that those escaping a fire should close all doors behind them. The notice reminds tenants that when escaping a fire, they should close all doors behind them, including all doors within the apartment through which they exit. And the notice says at all other times, public hallway corridor doors and all stairwell doors should be kept closed, except, of course, when using a door to enter or exit the apartment or floor.
These “close the door” notices must be posted and maintained on the public hallway corridor side of each stairwell door in the building. Postings of this notice aren’t required in the lobby. And postings also aren’t required for an open stair. Missing or damaged notices must be promptly replaced.
According to Fire Department rule 3 RCNY 401-06 Fire and Emergency Preparedness Guide, Checklist and Notices, each “close the door” notice must be:
- Printed on a single-sided sheet of paper framed under a clear plexiglas cover or laminated with a firm backing and designed to be affixed by mounting hardware or an adhesive, or printed on a matte-finish vinyl adhesive-backed decal not less than 3 mils in thickness, using thermal printing, screenprinting, or other permanent, water-resistant printing technique;
- Not be smaller than 2¾ inches by 12 inches in size (excluding any frame);
- Printed such that all text is clearly legible, with white lettering against a fire-engine red background or fire-engine red bold lettering against a white background and a type size of 38 point Times New Roman or equivalent for the first line of text; 24 point Times New Roman or equivalent for the second line of text; 20 point Times New Roman or equivalent for the third and fourth lines of text; and 14 point Times New Roman or equivalent, in black lettering, for the Administrative Code citation, which should read: “NYC Admin Code §15-135”;
- Printed with a full-color illustration, with an image size no smaller than one and three-quarters 1¾ inches by one and three-quarters 1¾ inches, on a white background; and
- Printed in the English language. The owner may print the fire and emergency preparedness notice in other additional languages (including symbols) as the owner concludes would benefit the building occupants.
You can download the city's sample notice at https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/fdny/downloads/pdf/codes/close-the-door.pdf.
Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detectors
New York City law requires the installation and maintenance of smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors. Both owners and tenants have responsibilities to ensure that all remain safe in their apartments from the dangers of fire and carbon monoxide. All newly installed alarms must be equipped with an audible “end of life” warning device and with a non-removable, non-replaceable battery that powers the alarm for a minimum of 10 years. A long-life battery sealed inside an alarm makes it virtually tamper-proof and eliminates the risk of tenants disabling the alarm.
All owners of residential buildings containing three or more apartments must install one or more approved smoke detectors in each apartment unless each apartment in the building is fully sprinklered. The following summarizes how to comply with the smoke detector law:
Installation. Owners must provide and install at least one approved and operational detecting device in each apartment within 15 feet of the primary entrance to each sleeping room. Smoke alarms must comply with Underwriters’ Laboratories 217 standard and have a non-removable, non-replaceable battery that powers the alarm for a minimum of 10 years. It also must emit an audible notification at the expiration of the useful life of the alarm.
Smoke detectors may be mounted on either the wall or ceiling. If mounted on the wall, the detector must be 4 to 12 inches from the ceiling. If installed on the ceiling, a detector must be at least 4 inches from the wall.
Posting. Owners must post a notice in a common area informing occupants of their right to have smoke detectors. You can find a combined smoke detector, CO alarm, and gas safety notice at https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/hpd/downloads/pdfs/services/sample-notice-combined-suspected-gas-leak-smoke-carbon-monoxide.pdf.
Maintaining detectors. Tenants must maintain their smoke detectors once they’ve been installed. But owners must replace any detector that has been stolen, removed, missing, or rendered inoperable before a new tenant moves in if the prior tenant hasn’t replaced it.
But a smoke detector that becomes inoperable during the first year through no fault of the tenant must be repaired or replaced by the owner within 30 days.
Records. Owners must keep all records relating to the installation and maintenance of the detector and provide them to the HPD’s Division of Code Enforcement, the DOB, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the FDNY if requested. Information to save includes records of smoke detector installation, listing the apartment number, date of installation, date the detector was tested, date any maintenance work was performed, date any tenant requested repair or replacement, and the tenant’s name.
Certificate of installation. Within 10 days after all detectors have been installed in a building or when devices are changed according to the requirement time frames or whenever broken/missing devices are replaced, an owner must file a Certificate of Satisfactory Installation with HPD.
Charge to tenants. Each tenant must reimburse the owner a maximum of $25, or a maximum of $50 where a combined smoke and carbon monoxide detecting device is installed, for the cost of providing and installing each such device. The tenant has one year from the date of installation to make the payment to the owner.
Fire Escape and Exits
Local law requires that an owner:
- Complete a building information sheet (the Fire Safety Plan) that describes the construction of the building and its fire safety systems, and sets forth all the means of egress from the building. A fillable pdf that can be completed online and printed can be found at https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/fdny/downloads/pdf/codes/building-information-form.pdf;
- Distribute fire preparedness and evacuation instructions to the building occupants and building service employees; and
- Post fire-safety notices at the appropriate locations.
Since 2000, every residential building has been required to prepare a fire safety plan, following a model prepared by the Fire Department. The NYC Apartment Building Emergency Preparedness Guide can be found at https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/fdny/downloads/pdf/codes/nyc-apartment-building-emergency-guide.pdf. This guide is distributed annually to all the occupants and service employees of the building either during the first week of October, which is Fire Safety Month, or with the window guard notice in January.
The plan must also be distributed to every new building occupant and every new building employee. It must be revised and redistributed within 60 days of any material change in building conditions affecting it. Records of distribution must be maintained; acceptable documentation includes a U.S Postal Service certificate of mailing or, for hand delivery, dated and signed receipts. The Fire Department may inspect these building records at any time and should be presented with copies of the last five annual fire safety plans.
Also, since 2020, the Individual Emergency Preparedness and Evacuation Planning Checklist is required to be delivered to residents. The checklist is to be delivered with the emergency preparedness guide. The purpose of the checklist is to assist residents in planning a more personalized evacuation plan. This is especially important for those with “limited mobility or other disabilities or special needs, key issues relative to their ability to evacuate the building.”
The checklist is available in a fillable PDF format that can be completed online and printed. It can be found at https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/fdny/downloads/pdf/codes/individual-emergency-checklist.pdf.
Fire safety notices inform people of the procedures to follow if there’s a fire. Owners must post a fire safety notice on the inside of the entrance door of every apartment in the building, as well as in the building’s common area.
There are two basic types of notices: one for combustible construction and the other for noncombustible construction. Each type has different instructions in the case of an emergency. The fire safety notice for noncombustible construction can be found at https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/fdny/downloads/pdf/codes/non-combustible-fireproof-building.pdf. And the notice for combustible construction can be found at https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/fdny/downloads/pdf/codes/combustible-non-fireproof-building.pdf.
Owners are responsible for maintaining the fire safety notices posted on the inside of apartment doors and the notices and fire safety plans posted in the building’s common areas. Owners are required to replace any missing or damaged fire safety notices posted on the inside of apartment doors before a new occupant moves in or on a tenant’s written request.
Stove Knob Covers
In response to another fire in the Bronx that occurred in December 2017 that killed 12 people, the City Council passed Local Law 117, which requires owners of multiple dwellings to provide stove knob covers for gas-powered stoves where the owner knows or reasonably should know that a child under 6 years of age resides. Owners must also provide stove knob covers in a unit without a child under age 6 if the tenant requests them.
Owners are also required to provide tenants with an annual notice that must inform tenants that:
- Stove knob covers will be made available within 30 days of distributing the annual notice;
- The owner must provide stove knob covers to any household that requests them, regardless of whether a child resides in the unit; and
- Tenants can forgo stove knob covers through written refusal to the landlord. If a tenant doesn’t submit written refusal to the owner, the owner is still obligated to provide stove knob covers to any household where the owner knows or reasonably should know that a child under age 6 resides.
The law doesn’t set a specific date by which the annual notice must be distributed. The notice can be found at https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/hpd/downloads/pdfs/services/annual-notice-stove-knob.pdf. It’s the owner’s obligation to keep documented proof of any notification of refusal for stove knob covers, notification from dwelling units that requested stove knob covers, and documented proof that the owner attempted to provide stove knob covers to a household where the owner knows or reasonably should know that a child under age 6 resides. Owners are not required to submit notices to HPD.