The question is: What will be taught? As much as I believe in the value of closing your bedroom door at night, and closing the door between you and a fire, I think the most important thing that can be taught in this moment is that the annual fire door assembly inspections – required by code in most jurisdictions in the U.S. – will save lives.
For at least a dozen years, the model codes and referenced standards have required fire door assemblies to be inspected each year, with the inspections documented and saved for review by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). But some jurisdictions are not yet enforcing these 3rd-party inspections. In many cases, building owners do not want to take on the expense of not only documenting the deficiencies, but repairing them.
When it comes to fire doors, we should not rely only on the mantra, “Close the Door, Close the Door, Close the Door.” In addition to raising awareness about the protection provided by doors, every fire door assembly should be inspected annually – as required by current codes – and deficiencies repaired without delay. This is the only way to ensure that fire doors will function as designed and tested if a fire occurs.
Yes, this is a big undertaking, and it will be costly to inspect these doors and bring them back into compliance. But what’s the alternative? In this single fire – one of many – 17 lives were lost and the building will cost millions to repair. Survivors have already filed a 1 billion dollar lawsuit. If the fire doors in this building had been inspected, the problems may have been uncovered and addressed, and 17 people might be alive today. It will be interesting to see how failure to enforce the code may affect the court cases that result from this fire – and others where open doors played a role.
I remember speaking with a fire marshal in New Jersey a few years ago, who was excited that their state fire code would soon be requiring annual fire door inspections. Rather than lamenting the time, effort, and cost required, he viewed it as a valuable tool for him to use to positively impact fire safety. These inspections are not intended to be the responsibility of the fire inspector. There are trained inspectors who specialize in fire door assemblies, and having an inspection done is the responsibility of the building owner.
The teachable moment here should be used to encourage consistent enforcement of the annual fire door inspection requirements. Code-compliant fire doors save lives. And how do you ensure that the fire doors are code-compliant? Have them inspected by a qualified fire door inspector, and repair the deficiencies.
For more information about fire door inspection, you can order the laminated cards below by clicking on the image and filling out the request form. There are additional articles about the Bronx fire below. I will continue to share information as I have it.
Karen Dejesus, 54, an 18-year resident of the building, told USA Today that her doors didn’t close automatically — and that she didn’t know whether any of the doors closed. Cookie Dennis, 72, a third-floor resident who has lived there for nearly three decades, told the New York Post that she also has been concerned with her safety door.
“My door doesn’t self-close and never has,” Dennis said. “I have lived here 27 years, and I don’t ever remember the door closing by itself; you have to close it yourself.”
Nigro pleaded for apartment residents in the city to be aware of whether their self-closing doors are working.
“If you’re in a building, an apartment building that has self-closing doors, make sure it works, and if it doesn’t, please point that out,” he said.
Similar to smoke detectors or stove-knob covers, the city does not routinely inspect self-closing doors to individual apartments, meaning that landlords and tenants are often the only defense mechanisms against this fire-spreading hazard, officials said.
“If no one’s enforcing on a somewhat regular basis or if tenants aren’t reporting a problem, or if tenants themselves are the ones manipulating it to make it just easier for them to leave the door open . . . those are some of the variables we can’t account for in government,” Councilmember Joe Borelli, who sponsored the 2018 bill that made self-closing doors a city law, told City & State.
“It’s not something that is required to be inspected regularly like an HVAC unit . . . there’s not much of a way to comply with this rule unless tenants file a complaint or if (the Department of Housing Preservation and Development) or (Department of Buildings) is there on another call,” he said.
Another lawsuit was filed against city authorities, accusing them of giving “lip service” to safety and fire issues, allegedly making them responsible for the injuries and deaths, as well.
The lawsuit claims the city’s Department of Buildings is responsible for ensuring self-closing doors in buildings are operating, but the agency “failed in every way” to ensure the building was properly maintained and doors were in good working order.
Spring-loaded hinges that were supposed to shut the door automatically did not work. A second door left open in a stairwell higher up acted as a flue, sucking smoke upward and through the building. New York City’s chief medical examiner told NewsNation that smoke inhalation was the cause of death for all those killed.
At the time of the 1986 blaze, the fire official wrote, automatic fire sprinklers in the trash compactor shaft and compactor room had been turned off. A self-closing door to the compactor closet on one floor had been wedged open and the door to a stairway on another floor had been left open to increase air flow.
The “combined effect of bypassing these safety devices contributed to the severity of the subsequent fire,” Deputy Chief James Murtagh wrote in the publication.
The deputy chief blamed “ignorance, carelessness or lack of understanding, with disastrous results.”
Glenn Corbett, a fire science professor at John Jay College in New York City, said closed doors are vital to containing fire and smoke, especially in buildings that do not have automatic sprinkler systems.
“It’s pretty remarkable that the failure of one door could lead to how many deaths we had here, but that’s the reality of it,” Corbett said. “That one door played a critical role in allowing the fire to spread and the smoke and heat to spread vertically through the building.”
A working smoke alarm was present. Many heard smoke alarms blaring through the huge apartment building that deadly day. They thought they were false alarms.
A similar issue happened with a door on the 15th floor. Both were fully open even though they should have closed automatically. It wasn’t clear if there was a malfunction or if the self-closing mechanism had been manually disabled.
Richard D. Gerhart Jr. recalls the cat-and-mouse game he’d play with the owner of a large apartment building over the years while he was a fire marshal in Lower Alsace Township.
The owner propped open the fire doors — the self-closing doors residents used to access their floors from the common stairwell — with wooden wedges because some tenants complained they couldn’t see through the doorway to their hallway as they came up the stairs when the fire door was closed
“I would go back and take them all out,” Gerhart said, “and he would make more wedges.”
The owner called the township building a couple of times to complain about the fire marshal’s diligence in enforcing the fire code, but Gerhart wouldn’t back down.
“I was trying to make him understand that during a fire, a closed door is just as good as a smoke detector: It’s going to save your life,” he said.