On the first anniversary of the Twin Parks fire that killed 17 people in the Bronx, the Federal Office of Emergency Management will unveil a new national plan to tackle “America’s fire problem,” using the investigative powers granted by the federal law President Biden signed last month.
The legislation would authorize the United States Fire Administration to determine the causes of fires such as the Twin Parks North West residential complex in the Bronx, New York City’s deadliest inferno in decades. It also allows the agency, which is part of FEMA, to identify and recommend other buildings with similar problems.
An investigation by The New York Times revealed that the fire safety system at Twin Parks had suffered a catastrophic failure and the deaths were preventable. The fire was ignited by an electric heater that ignited a mattress, but the victims died from breathing smoke, not the fire itself. Investigators believe the deadly smoke could spread to the upper floors of the 19-story building due to faulty self-closing doors.
An affordable residential building built in 1972, Twin Parks became the heart of a Gambian immigrant community in the Bronx, and many of those killed in the fire were African immigrants or their children. Like many older residential buildings in the city, Twin Parks lacked sprinkler protection. More than a million American households live in public housing, and many do not have lifesaving measures such as sprinklers or wired smoke detectors.
People of color, the elderly, the disabled and low-income are more likely to die in fires, and federal officials said one of their goals is to reduce these inequalities.
“How many other buildings in New York City have such fault points?”
Nikki Campbell, 46, who survived the Twin Parks fire, praised the new plan. “Looking forward, we need to make sure that things are done properly – these are people’s lives,” said Ms. Campbell, a city Parks Department employee who lives on the third floor of the building with her four children. None of them were injured, but three of the children jumped out of the window to safety. The family then lived in two hotel rooms for nine months before finding an apartment in September.
“You assume things like fire doors and fireproof paint are taken care of, but they really need to hold those homeowners accountable,” he said. “We may have lost 17 lives last year,” he added, “but the improvements they’ve made will save thousands and I can live with that.”
What You Need to Know About Affordable Housing in New York
It’s a worsening crisis. New York City is in a dire housing shortage, exacerbated by the pandemic that has made city living more expensive and increasingly inaccessible to many. What you need to know:
It’s a longstanding shortcoming. While the city seems to be building and expanding all the time, experts say it’s not fast enough to keep up with demand. Zoning restrictions, the cost of construction and the ability of politicians to find solutions are among the obstacles to increasing the housing supply.
Rising costs. The city regulates the rents of many apartments, but more than a third of the city’s tenants still experience a serious rent burden, meaning they spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent, according to city data. Property owners say higher rents are necessary to cope with the increased tax burden and increased costs for property maintenance.
Corporate housing. Thousands of people are on the waiting list for public housing in buildings inspected by the New York City Housing Authority. But the city’s public housing system, the largest in the country, has become a symbol of the deterioration of America’s aging public housing stock and is in desperate need of a financial rescue.
In search of solution. Mayor Eric Adams presented a plan to address New York City’s housing crisis, which includes expanding affordable housing through incentives for developers and preserving existing sub-market units. But critics of the mayor say the budget is still below what is needed.
On Tuesday, Ms. Moore-Merrell will travel to New York, where she will honor the deceased along with New York City fire commissioner Laura Kavanagh. The next day, Ms. Moore-Merrell will visit the scene of another deadly fire that shocked the country, just four days before the Twin Parks fire, only four days before 12 people, including 9 children, were killed in a row house public housing unit. Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood.
“Twin Parks North West is not unique. “Most buildings in the Bronx lack what experts would consider to be the fire safety standards of the 21st century.”
Ms. Moore-Merrell remembered getting a call from Mr. Torres as she was leaving Twin Parks the day after the fire. She asked what the agency’s investigation had uncovered, and she explained that the Fire Department had no investigative powers, she said.
“Just as there is a federal process for investigating aircraft incidents and cyber incidents, there should be a similar process for investigating fire incidents in hopes of turning lessons learned into policies and practices that will prevent future fires and save lives.” said Torres.
The Fire Department’s investigative powers will not be retroactive, so it will not investigate the Twin Parks fire itself. Other communities at risk of death from fire will benefit from this, said Daniel Madrzykowski, research director of the UL Fire Safety Research Institute. He said local investigators often focus on finding the cause of a fire, whereas the federal government can assess why the fire was so deadly.
“Why was the fire and smoke not contained in one unit during the fire in the Bronx? Why did it spread throughout the building? Need a change to the building code? Is there a need for a change in building design to prevent such things from happening in the future? said Mr Madrzykowski.
The number of criminal cases New York City pursues for fire safety violations has drastically decreased, sparking fewer fears than stringent sanctions just one year after one of the deadliest fires in decades. City officials said they are pursuing fewer civil charges to speed up the judicial process, but staffing has become a major issue in many city institutions in the wake of the pandemic.
“I have yet to see such advanced enforcement of fire code following a fire as disastrous as in Twin Parks.” It is the most cost-effective way to prevent fires with mass loss of life in high-rise buildings like Twin Parks.
In a report outlining the national fire strategy published by the Fire Department last year and reviewed by The New York Times, the agency called for public housing units to be equipped with fire sprinkler systems and argued that federal funding was needed to allow public housing authorities to put out the fire. “either upgrade residential units with wired smoke alarms or require the installation of tamper-proof, long-lasting, battery-operated smoke alarms.”
The law, which would require the installation of smoke alarms with 10-year tamper-proof batteries in federally funded public housing not currently equipped with wired smoke alarms, was promoted by the Fairmount fire and passed in a spending bill signed by President Biden last month.
Although legislation enacted in 1992 required that multi-family buildings be built with sprinkler systems, approximately 570,000 multi-family housing units built prior to this requirement are still in the system, and a “significant proportion” still do not have sprinklers, the Fire Administration report found.
Ms Moore-Merrell said many older buildings that serve as affordable housing are outdated and new construction does not need to meet building codes because of the myth that improvements are too expensive.
“Affordable housing in many of our cities is unsafe because it doesn’t follow the rules,” said Ms. Moore-Merrell.
Also worrying is the increase in fires caused by lithium-ion batteries, especially those found in e-bikes. New York City Fire Department officials reported that as of December, battery fires had killed six people and injured 140, with a total of 87 lithium-ion battery fires in the first 11 months of 2022 compared to the previous year.
“New York, unfortunately, is currently leading a trend with lithium-ion e-scooter and e-bike fires,” said Mr. Madrzykowski, whose group works with the municipality on battery fire prevention and education.
The Daily News reported last month that fire officials found an e-bike battery in the apartment where the Twin Parks fire started. The lithium-ion battery did not cause the fire, but officials believe it increased conditions for heavy smoke, the newspaper reported.