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NYT story on fire safety regulations

Posted by chelsea on January 13, 2001 at 18:11:24:

In Reply to: fire safety regulations posted by Cathleen Jordan on January 13, 2001 at 15:29:39:

Here's a December 18, 2000 New York Times story on the fire safety notice

A Possible Lifesaver, Yes, But an Insult to the Decor


Louis XIV it's not. Neoclassical? Not a chance. In the Federal style? Almost, but not quite. More like
Municipal Chic, circa 2001.

An 8 1/2-by-5 1/2-inch fire safety poster that is to grace the back of the doors to more than two million
New York City dwellings by Jan. 31 may clash with the wallpaper or insult the grain of the polished
mahogany nearby. But it's not there for its looks.

Fire Department officials say the poster, similar to one already required in hotel rooms, will save lives by
showing residents what to do if there is a fire in their rental apartment, co-op, condo, residential hotel or

But critics doubt that people will read it, and call the poster itself an eyesore that they can live without,
thank you. Other skeptics call the posters inadequate, and interior designers are tut-tutting about the
blight on home decor.

''What genius thought this up?'' said Karen Fisher, president of Designer Previews, which exhibits the
work of 300 interior designers and architects. ''It's like that 'do not remove' tag on pillows. We're
creating a whole new class of felons here. It seems so New York.

''For people who decorate -- spending $60,000 on an antique door or $250,000 to do their foyer -- do
you think they're going to want to look at a sign? It's one more regulation people don't pay attention to.''

Putting up the poster is not optional. It's the law. The sign is to be posted, without charge to the tenant,
on the back of the door to each dwelling in every building with three or more units. A safety pamphlet
must also be delivered to each apartment annually.

Officials imposed the rules after demands for action following two fires that killed seven people in 1998.
A major factor in the deaths was widespread confusion about what to do in an emergency -- including
whether to try to get out of a burning building. The answer, experts say, depends on the type of

Mixed reactions greeted Victor R. Martinez, the superintendent at 333 East 14th Street in Manhattan, as
he distributed the posters to residents on Thursday.

''That's really terrible, it's horrible,'' Maxine Spiegel said. ''You've decorated, and that's the last thing you

Jean Verrico was dubious. ''I understand the reasoning behind it, but I don't think anybody's going to
read it,'' she said.

But Jeanne Fresco, another resident, said she saw the value. ''Anything that's going to protect people
from fire is a good thing,'' he said. ''Ugly and safe is better than not ugly and dead.''

Aesthetics aside, proponents say the posters and pamphlets will help save lives.

''It will educate people,'' said Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen. ''What we found was people were
unaware of what to do. Even though some may be annoyed it's going to mess up their beautiful mahogany
door, it's important to remind people.''

The posters are to be installed by landlords and, yes, tenants are required to let the super in. At co-ops
and condos, unit owners will receive the posters and are legally responsible for putting them up.

Fire officials urge cooperation but say they are prepared to enforce the law. ''When we inspect buildings,
we'll be looking for compliance,'' said a department spokesman, Brian W. Dixon. Violators will be given
a number of days to install the signs, and those who do not will be subject to a criminal summons and
possibly be fined, Mr. Dixon said.

The posters come laminated, as decals or framed under plastic. There are even rumors of an
unsanctioned magnetized -- removable -- version for metal doors. English is standard, but other
languages are allowed.

''Let's see, it has to be at least 4 feet off the floor but no more than 5 1/2 -- we'll take a tape measure,''
said Jimmy Silber, owner of 1 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, as he browsed through the rules
last week. ''Is it crooked?'' he said as he positioned a decal below a peephole.

The posters and mailings for his 130 apartments cost about $400, plus three days of staff time, Mr. Silber
said. Landlords can buy the notices from vendors or from the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord

Another provision requires the safety pamphlet to be sent to each apartment and to each building
employee. That mailing includes fire prevention advice, emergency telephone numbers and details on
each building's stairs and exits and any alarms, sprinklers, emergency speakers and fire escapes.

''These packets are so voluminous -- I hope people focus on it,'' said Paul T. Brensilber, president of the
Community Home Improvement Program, a landlords' group.

Information is available from the Fire Department at (718) 999-2541 and (718) 999-2542. Rules and
forms are online at by clicking on RCNY on the fire agency's home page.

New York's requirements may be the first in the nation, city officials say. The rules were adopted by the
City Council and codified by the Fire Department after the two 1998 fires stirred debate.

Three firefighters died in a blaze in a Brooklyn complex where the sprinklers had been turned off. Then
four residents died on the stairs of South Park Tower on the Upper West Side, killed by fumes from the
burning apartment of the family of the actor Macaulay Culkin.

Investigations revealed that ignorance played a lethal role. A fatal mistake in both cases was the failure to
close the doors to the burning apartments to contain the fire. Wind fanned the flames and filled halls and
stairs with toxic clouds.

Another discovery was that even longtime residents were unaware of alternate stairways as escape

Many residents are confused about whether to leave the building when there is a fire. Experts said any
apartment on fire should be vacated, with the door closed but not locked.

But instructions vary for apartments that are not burning.

In combustible buildings, everyone is warned to get out if possible. But people in fire-resistant buildings
are told to stay until help comes or conditions become imminently dangerous. The pamphlets will indicate
whether the building is rated fire resistant.

Fire fatalities in the city have declined in recent decades, especially after smoke detectors were required
in 1985. Still, there were 112 deaths last year and 113 so far this year.

After the two big fires in 1998, pressure grew to mandate sprinklers in all apartments. The real estate
industry opposed that plan as too costly and of limited benefit. The compromise provided for sprinklers in
new or renovated buildings, as well as the safety posters and pamphlets.

Some people envisioned a hotel-style poster, showing a floor plan with exits marked, but the apartment
poster lacks such details. A guest in an unfamiliar hotel needs a floor plan, the Fire Department said,
while permanent residents know their surroundings.

People who have had a close call with fire seem to be taking the posters seriously.

''I was actually in a fire once in the Village, and fortunately, being an architect, I could remember how to
get out,'' Henry Smith Miller said. ''I wouldn't mind putting this on my door -- as long as the
typographical layout works for me.'' He suggested a design competition.

Be creative, advised one architect and designer, Lee S. Mindel. ''Take the old Andy Warhol adage:
make 25 and line them up vertically on the door,'' he said. ''It might be an art installation.''

Commissioner Von Essen said: ''You can make it pretty. You can draw flowers around it, whatever you

Dan Margulies, the director of the Community Home Improvement Program, the landlords' group, called
the poster ugly and admitted having doubts.

But he said: ''If it saves lives, it's worth it. But if tenants throw it away, it's too bad.''

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