Councilman O’Brien proposes Vacant Property Task Force

Large vacant commercial and industrial properties are fire traps, according to City Councilman Dennis O’Brien.

These idle relics of Philadelphia’s manufacturing age pose a grave threat to neighboring residents, curious kids, squatters, drug addicts and even the thieves who mine metal wiring and pipes from the unsecured structures. The buildings also threaten the lives of firefighters, as demonstrated on April 9, 2012, when Fire Lt. Robert Neary and Firefighter Daniel Sweeney perished in a Kensington warehouse blaze.

On Jan. 30, O’Brien, an at-large Republican, introduced legislation that he hopes will prevent similar tragedies in the future.

“Not only do these blazes cause more firefighter injuries than in any other property classification, they also damage nearby homes and businesses and destroy the fabric of the community,” O’Brien said while introducing his bill that would amend the city’s fire code.

“Whether the buildings are abandoned or vacant, more than 70 percent of the fires occurring in them are incendiary or suspicious. They’re targets for kids, vandals, drug users and the homeless.”

O’Brien is proposing to create a new Vacant Property Task Force that would identify and inspect suspected vacant and unsecured buildings, while maintaining a database that would serve as a real-time, searchable resource for emergency responders. The bill even calls for placards to be affixed to the exteriors of hazardous properties to alert firefighters to the immediate dangers.

Neary and Sweeney had no such warnings when they and two colleagues from Ladder 10 responded to a five-alarm fire at the vacant Buck Hosiery warehouse at Boston and Jasper streets. The firefighters went into a neighboring business hoping to stop the blaze from spreading. Instead, a brick wall from the six-story warehouse collapsed onto them, killing two while injuring firefighters Patrick Nally and Francis Cheney.

Neary’s widow, Diane, and Sweeney’s mother, Marian, each attended O’Brien’s City Hall news conference before the Jan. 30 Council session, as did city firefighters union president Joe Schulle. Neary said she sometimes visits the site of the fatal fire, which is now a large empty lot.

“I will look at the vacant spot where my husband died, and Danny died, and know the vacantness that can happen in someone else’s life,” Diane Neary said.

O’Brien said that a recently released independent investigation of the fatal fire indicated eight contributing factors, the first two of which were “multi-alarm fire in a vacant/abandoned structure” and “dilapidated building.”

“I introduce an ordinance that will take steps to reduce firefighter, other first responder and community risks presented by items one and two,” the councilman said.

In response to the bill, Mayor Michael Nutter administration officials reportedly said that the city already is working on the safeguards that O’Brien seeks. A spokeswoman from the the Department of Licenses and Inspection told The Philadelphia Inquirer that inspectors are in the midst of cataloging and citing the city’s vacant properties. They have visited 13,000 thus far, the newspaper said.

Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers reportedly said that his department has implemented new training based on the Buck Hosiery fire.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health conducted the independent investigation, while a Phila. grand jury on Feb. 3 released a scathing report blaming the fatal fire on the property owners, as well as ineffective city oversight, although no criminal charges were filed.

O’Brien noted that it’s been almost two years since the Buck Hosiery fire and he believes that the city’s response has been too slow. His plan would take effect immediately upon passage on a pilot program basis in the 7th Councilmanic District, where the Buck Hosiery fire occurred. Maria Quinones-Sanchez represents the district, which has a high concentration of potentially hazardous vacant properties.

After six months, O’Brien’s plan would expand to cover the entire city. After one year, all vacant properties — not just the large commercial and industrial sites — would be subject to the new fire code provisions.

The bill is awaiting assignment to a City Council committee for consideration. ••