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  • Deadly Apartment Fires Highlight the Importance of Working Smoke and Fire Alarms

    apartment firesEight children and four adults were recently killed in a deadly Philadelphia row home fire. Soon after, 17 people died in a similarly horrible fire in New York City.

    The Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) owns and operates the three-story Philadelphia row home, which the agency converted into two apartments. The PHA’s records show that one of the units contained six battery-operated smoke detectors and that the other had seven, though Philadelphia Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy said that none were operating at the time of the event. Though the city is conducting a thorough investigation into the incident, many Philadelphians have questions about why the residences were not adequately outfitted with working smoke alarms that could have notified the tenants of the impending tragedy.

    The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) said that the Bronx apartment building fire was the second most deadly house fire to occur in nearly four decades. An investigation into the incident determined that a malfunctioning space heater initiated the blaze; according to the NFPA, heating equipment is the second-leading cause of fires and the third-leading cause of residential fire fatalities. The Bronx residents were using the space heater to access supplemental heat during the latest cold front. Further investigative efforts have also uncovered additional information: residents had lodged reports of malfunctioning smoke alarms in the past and the apartment building had no fire escapes. Yet another potential factor behind the horrific blaze is whether the apartment building’s self-closing doors were operational at the time of the event. Per New York state law, buildings that contain three or more apartments must have self-closing doors to limit fire and smoke exposure.

    According to the NFPA, fire departments across the United States respond to more than 345,000 residential fires each year. Smoke alarms are a primary line of defense when it comes to alerting someone to a fire; they operate by detecting certain levels of heat and smoke in an area. Once these particles reach a certain threshold, the device sounds an alarm to notify residents to leave the property and call for help. Smoke alarms save lives: New York’s Department of Health estimates that the presence of a working smoke alarm reduces a person’s chance of dying in a house fire by as much as 50%. To keep people safe, every state has guidelines in place that require the owners of residences to install and maintain a certain number of smoke alarms (and carbon monoxide detectors) on a property.

    No matter if an individual or company owns or rents a home, apartment, or other type of residential space, there must be working smoke detectors on the premises. For example, the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs’ smoke detector requirements extend to all different types of residential spaces, like single and multifamily dwellings, multifamily apartment spaces, boardinghouses, tourist homes, hotels, motels, residential buildings, dormitories, rooming houses — the list goes on and on. Every property with multiple rooms or floors must contain more than one smoke alarm; having numerous units in a property is advantageous because if one is not working, the other(s) can still notify the resident that there may be a fire.

    Here are just a few examples of the comprehensive requirements that PA has in place for the installation and maintenance of smoke alarms in residential properties:

    • Property owners must install an operable, automatic smoke detector within 15 feet of each bedroom in the property
    • A landlord must make repairs or replace smoke detectors within 48 hours of receiving notice on the issue from a resident
    • Properties must have at least one working smoke detector on each floor of the unit. This minimum requirement is in addition to the smoke detector that a property owner must install within 15 feet of a bedroom
    • If a location houses three or more children, the owner must install an interconnected smoke detector on each floor of the unit that residents can hear from any location inside the property

    Property owners must maintain compliance with their state’s smoke alarm regulations. If a property owner fails to replace or install working smoke alarms that comply with state guidelines, it is not only illegal – it can also be deadly. The rules do not only apply to smoke alarms: many states enforce various building codes that mandate property owners to provide a specific number of fire extinguishers per floor and per square footage measurements of a residential unit. While it is important that tenants report any issues that they may be experiencing with smoke alarms or other fire safety features to their landlord, landlords are required by law to conduct safety inspections and risk assessments in order to identify fire hazards that may be present on the property.

    It is also critical to know that property owners and landlords are legally obligated to provide access to heat. Generally speaking, landlords must provide and maintain heat at a designated temperature (usually around 68° Fahrenheit) between the months of October and May. Though they are required to provide access to heat, property owners are not necessarily responsible for paying for it. The laws on what steps property owners must take to provide safe and habitable housing vary from state to state. To learn what the laws are where you live, you can look up your city or state’s municipal housing codes.

    There is an array of additional steps that landlords and property owners can take to reduce the chances of a house fire from occurring. Problems happen when irresponsible and unethical landlords cut corners to save a quick buck, leaving vulnerable and unsuspecting tenants in harm’s way. Property owners who prioritize fire safety can implement useful strategies like conducting regular fire safety checks, inspecting kitchen appliances, repairing chimneys and fireplaces, requiring tenants to carry renter’s insurance, and posting fire escape plans.

    A landlord or property owner may be liable for damages if he or she was negligent in maintaining a property in such a way that it contributed to the fire. Even when someone gets hurt, it can be difficult to determine and prove legal liability. At Galfand Berger, our attorneys are experienced in investigating a property owner for potential liability in the case of a residential fire.

    We resolved a case in which our client died from smoke inhalation and burn injuries following a devastating fire.  Her apartment complex had two buildings, with ten apartments, over three floors.  There were only two smoke detectors.

    If you or a loved one sustained injury in a house fire and you have questions about filing a claim, someone at our firm can help. To learn more, contact a representative online now.

    Philadelphia Personal Injury Lawyers at Galfand Berger, LLP, Representing Injured Victims Since 1947

    If you sustained injuries because of your landlord’s failure to uphold his or her legal responsibilities and you would like to pursue a just recovery of damages, contact our Philadelphia personal injury lawyers at Galfand Berger today. Call us at 800-222-USWA (8792) or fill out our online form for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, Bethlehem, Lancaster, and Reading, we serve clients throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including Allentown and Harrisburg.

    ALLENTOWN/BETHLEHEM
    610-865-4212

    LANCASTER
    717-824-3376

    READING
    610-376-1696