In a horrific fire on Jan. 9, 17 people - including 8 children - died. More than 60 others were injured in the blaze. Officials in New York City believe this to be the deadliest fire since 1990.
Last month we warned about the dangers of space heaters, and unfortunately, we’re seeing those dangers catastrophically become reality. The fire was sparked by an electric space heater that malfunctioned in a resident’s bedroom. The fire began in a single apartment unit, but spread on both the second and third floor of the 19-floor building.
The space heater that caused the fire was running for a prolonged period of time before the fire started. It’s unknown what caused the space heater to malfunction, but the fire quickly spread to furniture and bedding near the space heater.
The building did have the heat on, but many residents supplemented it with multiple space heaters in their units because the heating system didn’t work well, according to an apartment resident.
While the fire was contained to two floors, the smoke from the flames spread through the entire building. It was the smoke, not the fire, that killed all 17 victims of the fire. People suffered cardiac and respiratory arrest due to severe smoke inhalation. Many others were brought to area hospitals in serious condition due to breathing in so much smoke.
Closed Doors Can Save Lives in a Fire
One of the issues which led to the serious smoke spread in the building was an apartment safety door that failed to close. The fire damaged a small part of the building, but a safety door that should’ve closed automatically didn’t. Thick smoke poured out the apartment’s open door and turned the apartment’s stairwells into a death trap. Because the building was too tall for fire escapes, the stairwell was the only way for residents to escape the building.
Two doors in the building should’ve been self-closing, but they stayed wide open. Had the doors closed, they could’ve slowed and lessened the spread of smoke and saved lives.
Closed doors are vital to containing fire and smoke. The failure of the one or two doors allowed the fire to push the smoke and heat through the building – floor after floor. While new apartment buildings in NYC are required to have sprinkler systems and doors that automatically swing shut, thousands of older buildings in the city don’t have them.
Benefits of Closing Your Doors:
- Close your doors before sleeping: Closing your doors helps stop the spread of a fire.
- A 900-degree difference: In the event of a fire, a closed door can keep a room at about 100 degrees, compared to a room that can get up to 1,000 degrees if the door is left open.
- Less carbon monoxide: A closed door can keep carbon monoxide levels much lower during a fire. A closed door could mean 1,000 parts per million of carbon monoxide, while an open door could mean 10,000 PPM of carbon monoxide.
How Tenants Can Make Themselves Safer in Apartment Buildings and Rentals
Everyone should have a fire escape plan, whether you live in a single-family home or a high-rise apartment.
Even though the building may have periodic fire drills, it’s important to do your own fire drills with your family and all members of your apartment. Practicing fire drills will ensure each family knows where to find all exit stairwells and how to get to them as quickly as possible. If you live with children or the elderly, make sure there is an understood plan about which family member will help each child or elder.
Fire Safety Tips for High-Rise Apartment Living:
- Don’t panic in the event of a fire. Staying calm can help you survive.
- Remember that smoke is deadly and that it rises. Even if it seems OK to stand, it’s safer to crawl to the door if there is smoke.
- Check if there is fire on the other side of the door before opening it. Feel your doorknob - if it is very hot, the fire is likely right outside your door.
- Open doors cautiously. If there is extremely hot air or smoke when you open the door, close it immediately.
- If you can enter the hall, follow your practiced escape route.
- Don’t grab any personal belongings, but shut the door behind you. Grab your key if possible but don’t waste any time.
- Do not use an elevator.
- If you need to use an inside stairwell, check for smoke before entering.
- If the stairwell is safe, walk but don’t run.
- If the stairwell is unsafe and filled with smoke, it may be safer to return to your apartment.
- If you need to return to your apartment, crack open a window to let smoke escape. Do not break your window because if there is more smoke outside than there is inside, you’ll need to be able to close it again.
- Close all your vents and air ducts if you’re stuck in your apartment. Get towels and sheets wet and stuff them around your doors.
As a space heater started this tragic New York City fire, it’s also important to be aware of space heater safety. For one, if you live in an apartment and your landlord doesn't keep it warm enough, you should take action. In the state of New York, for example, a landlord must provide sufficient heat and hot water. If the outside temperature is below 55 degrees, the inside temperature must be at least 68 degrees.
In Massachusetts, landlords must pay for the heat unless your lease requires that you do. From September to June, landlords are required to set the temperature to at least 64 degrees during the night and 68 degrees during the day. If your landlord isn’t following these guidelines, call your local officials to learn about your options.
Unfortunately, we know that not all landlords follow the heating laws and this causes people turn to effective and powerful small space heaters to help keep warm. Space heaters are a great way to keep warm, but they do come with risks. Space heaters are responsible for more than 40% of home fires.
Space Heater Safety Tips:
- Do not run a space heater constantly. Turn it off and let it cool from time to time.
- Do not let anything touch the heater. Nothing should be within 3 feet of the space heater on any side.
- Don’t place a space heater directly on the carpet.
- Don’t use an electric cord with the space heater.
- Check on your space heater to make sure it’s not knocked over.
When you live in an apartment, some things are out of your control regarding fire safety. But there are some things you can do to help make your apartment as safe as possible.
Remember to check the fire alarms in your unit regularly. You should have a smoke alarm on every level of your apartment, in each bedroom, outside sleeping areas and in any family rooms. It’s recommended that you test your alarms every 6 months to make sure your batteries still work. You also want to make sure your smoke detector isn’t more than 10 years old. Look at the back of the alarm for the manufacture date.
A fire extinguisher is also a great investment. It could help you put out a small fire in your own apartment and could also aid in your escape during a fire in the building. It’s a good idea to keep the extinguisher in your kitchen or near your apartment door. If it’s in your kitchen, it needs to be at least 6 feet away from your stove.
Other items you may want to consider if you’re going to put together a fire escape kit would be a smoke mask or respirator, heat-resistant gloves, a glow stick or a flashlight, and an emergency blanket. If you live on one of the first three floors of an apartment, a fire escape ladder is always a great idea as it can provide a simple, fast way to escape the apartment.
Massachusetts Tenant Rights after a Fire in an Apartment
All landlord’s insurance policies for multi-unit residential buildings must provide up to $750 in relocation benefits to tenants, according to Massachusetts law. The $750 could go toward a hotel stay, a security deposit on a new apartment, clothes, furniture, or other reasonable costs and living expenses. If you submit a written request to your landlord, they’re required to disclose the name of their insurance company to you.
If you cannot live in your apartment for a period of time after a fire, you should not have to pay rent. If you’re unable to return to your apartment after a fire, the landlord must reimburse you the security deposit you paid and/or last month’s rent.
Getting renter’s insurance is also very important, especially in the event of a fire.
Having renters insurance is likely the only way to get reimbursed for anything damaged in the fire. Unless the landlord’s negligence somehow led to or contributed to the fire, the landlord will not be responsible for damages to a tenant’s belongings. Renter’s insurance can cover your personal property as well as help cover additional living expenses until your unit is remediated or in the event you can’t move back into your apartment.
Displaced apartment residents can seek help from the Massachusetts Emergency Housing Assitance Programs, their city housing authority offices, or the Red Cross or other aid organization. An organization such as the Red Cross can help you understand any benefits you’re entitled to after a tragic fire.
Massachusetts Landlord Responsibilities after a Fire
Every Massachusetts landlord for a multi-unit apartment building is required to have an insurance policy that provides relocation coverages to every unit in the building. The coverage must be up to a limit of $750 for each unit to help relocate any tenant who has to move after a fire.
Having this insurance and then complying with local authorities are the primary responsibilities you have as a landlord following a fire. The best thing to do, however, is to make sure you’re doing everything you can to prevent a fire in your units and your building.
Landlords of all rental units in Massachusetts are required to install smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors for their tenants. There are a number of other steps a landlord can take to help prevent fires.
How Landlords can Prevent Fires & Aid Renters in Massachusetts
- Obey Local Fire Codes: This can help keep your renters safe and can help ensure you’re not violating any terms of your landlord insurance.
- Conduct Regular Fire Safety Checks: Inspect your units and hallways to ensure that the smoke and carbon monoxide alarms are working. It’s ideal to have a smoke and carbon monoxide detector in every room and a fire alarm system that sounds all alarms if one is set off.
- Provide Fire Extinguishers: Put fire extinguishers in the unit’s kitchen and teach them how to use them.
- Post an Escape Plan: You should have a clear fire escape plan posted on every floor of your apartment building.
- Require Tenants to have Insurance: Renters insurance can help your tenants cover costs of items lost in a fire as well as other losses.
- Fireproof your Landscaping: Maintain all bushes, trees, and anything near the building that could catch fire. Keep a distance between trees, shrubs, patio furniture, etc.
- Install Sprinklers: Sprinklers can contain and even put out a fire before the fire department arrives. Sprinklers reduce the death rate in fires by more than 80%. Some cities and towns in Massachusetts require sprinklers, so be sure to check your local ordinances.
- Keep Paths Clear: It’s the landlord’s responsibility to keep entrances, exits, hallways and shared spaces free of hazards.
- Create Fire Safety Lists: Prepare a list of fire prevention tips and information that will help your tenants know what they can do to prevent fires as well.
- Consider the Following: A fire blanket in each unit, a smoking ban, and grilling rules.
Were You Injured in a Fire or by Smoke? Massachusetts Injury Attorney Can Help
If you were injured in or displaced by a fire, Spada Law Group can help. Fires are serious and can lead to injuries and health consequences, in addition to relocation needs. If you are a renter, you have rights after a fire. Give us a call for a free consultation so we can discuss your options.
We have offices in Chelsea, Peabody and Worcester, but we can also meet with you remotely, no matter where you are in Massachusetts.