New legislation gives the federal agency power to identify the causes of deadly fires and recommend improvements.
The U.S. Fire Administration, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), will use newly granted investigatory powers to identify buildings at high risk of fire and issue recommendations in an effort to avoid fatal fires like the one that killed 17 people at the Twin Parks North West housing complex a year ago.
As Jeffery C. Mays and Téa Kvetenadze report in the New York Times, “The blaze was sparked by an electric space heater that ignited a mattress, but the victims died of smoke inhalation, not the fire itself. Investigators believe that deadly smoke was able to spread to the upper floors of the 19-story building because of faulty self-closing doors.”
“Just like there is a federal process for investigating airplane incidents and cyber incidents, there ought to be a comparable process for investigating fire incidents in the hopes of translating the lessons learned into policies and practices that will prevent future fires and save lives.”—U.S. Representative Ritchie Torres (D-NY)
The problem is particularly acute in older buildings, many of which provide affordable housing for low-income households. “More than a million American households live in public housing units, and many lack lifesaving measures like sprinklers or hard-wired smoke detectors,” the article points out. Lori Moore-Merrell, head of the U.S. Fire Administration, is quoted as saying that “too many older buildings that serve as affordable housing are grandfathered in and not required to meet the building codes of new construction because of the myth that the improvements are too expensive.” The legislation does not specify any enforcement mechanisms beyond “cooperation with appropriate federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial authorities.”
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