Photo: Sam Costanza/for New York Daily News

I suspect that many of you already know what the topic of today’s post will be; many readers sent me links to news reports on last week’s fire in a Bronx apartment building.  Twelve people have died and four more were critically injured in this fire which was reportedly started by a toddler playing with the knobs of a gas stove.  The door to the apartment of fire origin was left open, allowing the smoke and flames to spread up the open stairwell and trap some of the building’s residents.

The aftermath of these tragedies has become quite predictable.  Anyone with access to social media has a way to immediately share their opinions and point fingers – where were the parents?…why wasn’t the stove equipped with a gadget to prevent access to the knobs?…why did the toddler’s mother leave the apartment door open when she escaped with her 2- and 3-year-old children?…why didn’t all of the smoke detectors function?…why weren’t there sprinklers in the building?

As some of you can probably imagine, I have a hard time keeping quiet.  Of course I wish with all of my heart that these tragedies didn’t occur, but when they do, I see an opportunity to educate and inform.  Banging this drum is not for the faint-of-heart, though.  The FDNY posted this message on Facebook “FDNY Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro urges everyone to please close the door behind you if fleeing an apartment that is on fire,” and I left a comment about self-closing, self-latching fire door assemblies and annual inspections.  A woman responded, “Yeah don’t hold people accountable for their actions at all – blame the government for not closing the door.”

<Sigh>  I’m not blaming the government, or the mom, or the 3-year-old.  I’m not blaming the FDNY, the residents who tried to escape via the smoke-filled open stairwell, the manufacturers of the stove or the smoke detectors.  I’m simply stating a fact – for decades, fire door assemblies have been required by building codes and fire codes for interior apartment entrances.  These fire door assemblies are designed to close and latch on their own – without intervention from a panicked mother carrying her two toddlers.  If the assemblies are functioning as designed and constructed, they will help to protect the means of egress and the occupants of other apartments with closed doors.

This is not the first apartment fire where the door has been left open, allowing the smoke and flames to spread; these victims are not the first people to die this way.  The codes are in place to help prevent this from occurring.  Lack of maintenance is no excuse, since the criteria for annual fire door assembly inspections has been included in NFPA 80 for more than 10 years.  What’s missing is education.  If the general public was better-informed about the purpose of fire door assemblies, more would value the protection provided rather than viewing self-closing doors as a nuisance.  In a recent conversation with NFPA staff, I discussed the need for more education related specifically to fire doors in multi-family residential occupancies.

The FDNY commissioner says, “Close the door.  Close the door.  Close the door.”  If fire door assemblies are present and maintained as required by code, the doors will close themselves.  According to one news report quoting Matthew Creegan, spokesman for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, “Creegan says the city takes seriously the issue of self-closing doors, required in all dwellings with more than three units. He says the city cited landlords over 7,752 times in the last year for violations of the self-closing-door requirement.”  (Here’s an interesting perspective, and another.)

Let’s hope that the scale of the most recent fire will result in positive change and improved fire safety to help prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Here’s a report from NBC News:

For more information about fire door assemblies, visit the Fire Door page of this site.

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