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Prevent fires, save lives

The new year has brought two deadly fires in city high-rises as well as serious fires in southeastern Connecticut that should focus public attention on fire prevention.

A dozen people died Jan. 5 in an early-morning fire in a Philadelphia row house, and four days later a blaze ripped through a Bronx apartment building, killing 17 people and critically injuring many more.

In both cases, lapses in fire protection exacerbated the toll.

In Philadelphia, battery-operated smoke detectors had been disabled and did not go off when a child playing with a lighter ignited a Christmas tree. In New York, a space heater caught fire, but when smoke detectors sounded, residents were so inured to the sound they initially ignored it.

The Bronx blaze was exacerbated by automatic doors that failed to close, creating a chimney-like effect that sent deadly smoke throughout the building.

Tragedies like this inevitably spark some reckoning.

In 1911, fire in New York City's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory claimed 146 garment workers who were trapped on the upper floors, where management had locked them in. The aftermath led to widespread reform not only in fire safety but working conditions.

Rhode Island enacted some of the toughest fire regulations in the country in the wake of The Station nightclub fire in 2003, when 100 people died after indoor fireworks ignited highly flammable soundproofing foam.

Britain is still mitigating fire safety issues that came to light after the 2017 Grenfell Tower blaze, where flammable exterior cladding contributed to the deaths of 72 people. The New York Times reported this week that remediation of other buildings with the same substance could cost the equivalent of $67 billion.

The Philadelphia and New York fires are already under investigation, and no doubt will lead to some finger-pointing. But some observations can be made now.

So far it seems that inspections of both buildings were up to date. But the human factor can undermine the most rigorous fire code.

A lack of affordable housing, and the conditions of that housing, may have contributed to this tragedy.

In Philadelphia, 14 people were living in a unit originally leased to six. That building passed a fire inspection last May. But investigators found that all but a basement smoke detector had been disabled. Some had been shoved into drawers or left on the floor.

In New York, residents were using space heaters to supplement the building's radiators. They would not have resorted to this if the building's heat was reliable.

In addition, the repeated activation of smoke detectors in the Bronx building — possibly by people smoking in stairwells — blunted the alarms' effectiveness.

In Philadelphia, an unsupervised child, a box of matches and a tinder-dry Christmas tree made a deadly mix. In New York, a space heater had been left on for days in a bedroom.

Sometimes the most potent tool in educating the public is a tragic example. New laws may come out of this, but fire safety education also should be a focus. The New London Fire Marshal's Office recently released timely advice on the safe use of space heaters. They bear repeating:

  • Keep anything that can burn 3 feet away from portable heaters or any heating equipment, such as a fireplace, wood stove or furnace.
  • Turn off the portable heater when you leave the room or when you go to bed.
  • Make sure your heater has been tested by a recognized laboratory.
  • Make sure your heater has automatic shut-off, so it shuts off if it tips over.
  • Ensure the heater is located on a solid, flat surface.
  • Plug the portable heater directly into a wall electrical outlet, do not use an extension cord.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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