Last week marked the 3-year anniversary of a senseless tragedy – a fire in the Belmont neighborhood of the Bronx that resulted in the deaths of 13 people, including several children. The fire began when a child was playing with the knobs on the stove in his apartment. When his mother evacuated with her children, the apartment door did not close, and the smoke and flames blocked the egress route for other residents of the building – this was eerily similar to a NYC fire that occurred in 1998.
In the news coverage of the Bronx fire, reporters frequently mentioned that the child’s mother left the apartment door open, while I repeatedly proclaimed to my computer screen, “THE DOOR SHOULD HAVE BEEN SELF-CLOSING!” Although for many years the model codes have required interior entry doors to dwelling units and sleeping units to be 20-minute self-closing fire door assemblies, some older residential buildings pre-date this requirement. Unfortunately, this has resulted in loss of life on multiple occasions.
There have been many fatal fires where closed fire doors could have saved lives by limiting the fire’s spread. I recently shared a report on a Minneapolis high-rise fire, where an open door to the apartment of fire origin compromised the egress route and 5 people died. In a Chicago apartment fire, the residents left the door to their unit open so the cat could escape. When a firefighter was killed during an apartment fire in Maryland, a fire modeling analysis was created to show the effects of the open door. I’ve also posted examples of how closed fire doors compartmentalize buildings and limit the spread of smoke and flames (check this one out!). Door closers are life savers.
Blaming fire victims for leaving the door open as they escape is not the answer. In 2011, a fire occurred at the Evelyn Gardens apartment complex in Albany, California, and the family’s failure to close the door was again noted by news media. Soon after that fire, the city of Albany passed a law requiring apartment entrance doors to be self-closing – FINALLY, a long-term solution! After the 2017 Bronx fire, New York City also passed a law requiring these doors to be self-closing, and Local Law 111 established July 31, 2021 as the deadline for compliance:
§ 28-315.10 Self-closing doors. All doors providing access to interior corridors or stairs in occupancy groups R-1 and R-2 shall be self-closing or equipped with a device that will ensure closing after having been opened by July 31, 2021.
In addition, the law amended the administrative code of NYC, establishing responsibility for maintaining the doors, and consequences for failure to do so:
§ 27-2041.1 Self-closing doors.
a. It shall be the duty of the owner of a multiple dwelling, which is required to be equipped with self-closing doors pursuant to section 28-315.10, or any other applicable law, to keep and maintain such doors in good repair.
b. Any owner required to keep and maintain self-closing doors pursuant to subdivision a of this section who fails to keep or maintain such doors shall be liable for a class C immediately hazardous violation. Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, the time within which to correct such violation shall be twenty-one days after service of the notice of violation.
If a fire door is standing open, it can’t perform as designed…door closers ARE life savers.
You may be asking, “What about spring hinges – would they meet the requirements of the NYC law?” Yes, in my opinion, a self-closing door with spring hinges would be compliant with this law. However, over time, spring hinges may need to be adjusted in order to close and latch the door. The door control provided by a door closer is more reliable and less likely to need adjustment.
I would love to see more state or local laws requiring existing apartment entry doors to be self-closing. The question is how to make this happen without waiting for a tragedy?