Simple building measurements could save lives from fires in the Bronx

This story was written for the Knight NewmarkJ Summer Internship Program at the City University of New York. I worked on this story for two months aside from attending weekly digital training classes and working on a full-time internship at a production company. 

Children chase one another on their scooters and bikes up Prospect Avenue and around the corner on East 187th Street. Their moms take a break from their chat to yell at them not to go too far. Two men nearby grill meat patties and serve fish they caught themselves to anyone who is hungry.

On this summer Saturday afternoon, anyone who is not from the Belmont neighborhood in the Bronx would see the area as vibrant and safe. It was a much different scene on Prospect Avenue less than six months ago when there was chaos, panic and smoke—residents were all crammed onto a fire escape outside in below freezing temperatures and 13 lost their lives.

According to the New York City Fire Department, lives could have been saved if the mother of the 3-year-old boy who started the fire playing with stove burners had closed the door after she picked up her son and fled the building. The fire shot straight up into the inside staircase as a result. After the tragedy, the New York City Fire Department, building supervisors, landlords and residents are finding ways to avoid any future tragedies.

As of June 2018, 2363 Prospect Avenue in the Belmont area of the Bronx remains vacant and boarded up from the December 2017 fire that killed 13 residents. The City of New York has approved a set of bills that serve as fire safety codes to prevent future fires.

BronxFires_RobertDestinyJones
Robert Jones and his daughter Destiny Jones sit on the corner of 187th Street and Prospect Avenue while Destiny plays with Pokémon cards. The two live across the street from the December 2017 fire that took the lives of 13 of their neighbors. (Photo by Michaela Román)

Now, there are new building safety codes that require doors that shut automatically in every building across New York City. City Council proposed the measure in the hopes of avoiding any future fires from completely engulfing a building.

“When the fire is in your apartment you don’t really think about closing the door behind you, grabbing your stuff and knocking on people’s doors,” said Robert Jones, who lives across the street from the now boarded up apartment building with his family.

In 2017, New York City experienced 73 civilian fire deaths, 25 more than in 2016. In December of 2017 alone, 26 people died in fires— the worst month for fire deaths in more than a quarter century.

In February, FDNY Chief of Operations John Sudnik announced the department stood behind City Council Bill 602, which requires that all doors in residential occupancies be self-closing. The new requirement also creates a fine violation of the Housing Maintenance Code for a failure to keep and maintain self-closing doors.

Jim Bullock, a retired FDNY Deputy Chief, worked with the fire department for 30 years and fully supports the bills. Bullock fully supports the bill and thinks it is an important step to take toward safer apartment buildings.

“There should be no problem in ensuring that the apartment self-closing doors are in working order. You fully open the door then let it go then the door should fully close and latch,” said Bullock. “If it doesn’t adjust the self-closing device should be replaced.”

Bullock said it is the City’s responsibility to ensure that the fire and building codes are upgraded to meet any hazards that arise over time and landlords are responsible for enforcing those codes.

Other approved bills include Bill 610, which requires that all landlords provide child-proof stove knob covers in units where children under the age of six reside, and Bill 604, which requires that after January 1 of 2021, smoke alarms in residential occupancies that are installed within 20 feet from a fixed cooking appliance must comply with standards from reduction of nuisance alarms.

Some building managers like Vicky (who did not want to disclose her last name) did not wait to be told by the fire department what she needs to fix. She took the initiative to make sure everything was up to date.

As of June 2018, 2363 Prospect Avenue in the Belmont area of the Bronx remains vacant and boarded up from the December 2017 fire that killed 13 residents. The City of New York has approved a set of bills that serve as fire safety codes to prevent future fires. (Photo by Michaela Román)

“When I first heard there was a fire in the Bronx, my first reaction was ‘Oh my God, where?’ and when I heard it was around the corner, I drove here (immediately) and saw police so I looked at my paperwork to make sure everything was up to date,” Vicky said.

Vicky has managed the apartments at 764 East 187th street for three years. It is four stories and has nine families residing in it. When it comes to fire safety, Vicky said whenever any small issue comes up she takes care of it right away and sees the safety of her tenants as her first priority.

Robert Jones and his daughter Destiny Jones sit on the corner of 187th Street and Prospect Avenue while Destiny plays with Pokémon cards. The two live across the street from the December, 2017 fire that took the lives of 13 of their neighbors. (Photo by Michaela Román)

“We make sure that if there is anything with electricity we automatically change it,” said Vicky. “If there is a problem with something I am responsible for this unit. I make sure everything is working fine. Whatever problem it is you have to take care of it.”

When it comes to children, Bullock said minors need to consistently be taught not to play with matches, stoves or candles.

“They should know where all the exits are and how to use them. They should practice evacuation drills and have a set location to meet after evacuating,” he said.

Since the fire, Jones’ the building on Prospect Avenue has held weekly fire drills. Jones said he was heartbroken when he found out many of the fire victims were children, having three of his own ages 13, 10 and six.

His six-year-old, Destiny, says sometimes she likes the fire drills but sometimes she does not, since they interrupt her play time.

According to the bill, self-closing doors, childproof stove knob covers and smoke alarms near cooking appliances will need to be fully enacted by July 31, 2021.

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