Between the Lines: Low-Income Families at Higher Risk for Fire Injury

Is it an acceptable level of risk for a child to live in an 80-year-old apartment building that hasn’t been renovated in as many years with a heating system from the ’60s, electrical wiring for the ’70s, and battery-powered smoke detectors that have been in place since the ’90s? Would it be an acceptable risk for a child who was born into a middle- or upper-class family?

Research in Philadelphia and Detroit found that neighborhoods where people are most likely to be injured by fire are low-income with an older housing stock, according to a 2006 Villanova University study that analyzed 10 years of fire injury data. But Massachusetts’ fire codes do little to address this obvious problem.

I’ve been thinking a lot about fire safety standards since the December fatal fire in Holyoke ripped through a 102-year-old, five-story brick building leaving three people dead and 25 families homeless.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that Massachusetts isn’t doing enough to make sure people scraping to get by have a safe place to live.

In every rental unit, Holyoke Fire Chief John Pond said people should expect to see smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in the common areas and bedrooms; all exits clear of debris or impediment to leaving the building; and nothing apparent in the building’s wiring or structure that could start a fire.

“Even if the residents don’t see something right away, they can give us a call and we’ll send a fire prevention officer out to take a look,” Pond said. “We’ll advise a resident on what to do or … require [property owners] to get their place inspected.”

To save lives in multi-family units, many people in the fire safety community are pushing the installation of fire suppression systems, aka sprinklers, in structures with two-or-more residential units. With sprinklers, the fire death rate per 1,000 reported home structure fires was lower by 82 percent, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Sprinklers help keep a fire under control until firefighters get on scene, which is great in a time when fire department brownouts — under staffed services due to budget cuts — are becoming more common.

No fire detection and suppression system works, however, if residents ignore it, noted Chicopee Fire Cpt. and Investigator Mark Galarneau.

“People need to be active in reporting fires,” he said. “If there’s smoke they need to get out of the building and call 911. Don’t assume someone else called.”

In Massachusetts the big fire safety code is the 2010 law that requires property owners of spaces more than 7,500 gross-square-feet who began construction after 1975, or significantly renovated an older building thereafter, to install a automatic fire suppression systems in their buildings. But this doesn’t do much to help people living in old buildings.

With 66 percent of the Valley’s residential units built before 1970, according to the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, this law rarely aids the 44 percent of Valley residential renters living in homes constructed before 1940.

Massachusetts also has two more fire safety provisions that cities and towns can chose whether to adopt: one requires sprinklers be installed in every boarding and lodging house in the community, the other requires the installation of sprinklers in each new dwellings of four or more units.

Installing sprinkler systems at boarding and lodging houses is an acknowledgement that the lives of the people in these homes are valuable. Yet, there are only 10 communities in Western Mass that have made the provision local law: Amherst, Chicopee, Cummington, Easthampton, Holyoke, Lee, Ludlow, Pelham, Russell, and Ware, according to the 2013 state Department of Fire Services annual report, the most recent one available.

The second provision, which requires additional fire safety measures in new units of four or more, is unlikely to help low-income families any time soon, but I still commend the 13 area communities that made it law.

The onus for providing rental units with a low risk of residential fire injuries should be on the property owners, but only the state has the power to compel such action. Retroactively requiring the installation of sprinkler systems in buildings with four or more residential units seems like a good, life-saving place to start.

But the new safety measures cannot come with a rent hike — it’s just not something low-income families can afford. In addition to requiring the retroactive installation of fire suppression sprinklers, Massachusetts should create a temporary grant program to defray much of the cost to property owners of older buildings. In a three-unit dwelling, sprinklers could be installed for $5,00-$6,000 each unit, according to a National Fire Protection Association estimate. The money should come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “block grant” program.

Every year, the federal housing department doles out hundreds of millions of dollars to states, which then accept applications from municipalities for projects that fund economic development and support low- and moderate-income residents. Massachusetts should use part of its grants — the state got $28 million last year — to help property owners install sprinkler systems and save lives.

Kristin Palpini can be contacted at editor@valleyadvocate.com.

Kristin Palpini

Author: Kristin Palpini

Editor of the Valley Advocate

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