Fire fatalities have steadily declined in the United States over the last few decades due in part to improved building codes requiring safety measures such as sprinkler systems, multiple fire exits and fire-resistant construction materials. The recent deadly blaze in the Bronx, however, serves as a reminder that many of the country’s big cities are packed with homes that have none of these safety features. The March 7, 2007 fire claimed 10 lives when flames ignited by a space heater ripped through a century-old town house inhabited by two immigrant families from West Africa. Investigators discovered a variety of dangerous conditions in the three-story home, such as no sprinklers or fire escape and only one stairwell, leaving residents no way out once that exit was blocked by flames. The house had only two smoke detectors, neither of which had working batteries or was hard-wired to the electrical system, and was crowded with 22 residents, most of them children. None of these deficiencies appeared to violate the city’s building code.
The tragedy has caught the attention of many fire safety experts, such as Richard Custer, a fire safety expert at Arup, a global design firm. “In most cities, there will be a stock of buildings that don’t meet the current standards, and they are accidents waiting to happen,” said Custer, “The problem is, a lot of owners don’t want to spend the money to bring these things up to speed.” Glenn P. Corbett, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said similar violations occur in the suburbs surrounding the city. “There’s this much larger group out there that is not following the law,” he said. “Believe me, there is no incentive for a building owner to say, ‘Yes, Mr. Building Inspector, come in and enforce the code and make me install these stairwells and sprinklers.’”
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), a public safety advocacy group, reports that 2,570 of the 3,675 civilian deaths in fires in 2005 occurred in one- or two-family homes. Those deaths are down considerably from 1978, when 7,710 civilians died in fires, including 4,945 in one- and two-family homes.
For useful information regarding ways to keep yourself, your family, and your community safe from fire and other risks, please see NFPA’s Safety Tips and Fact Sheets as well as FireSafety.gov.