HomeOpinionRecent public housing tragedies demand greater fire safety protection

Recent public housing tragedies demand greater fire safety protection

By Wayne Miller

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Sprinkler Fitters Local 692, Philadelphia extends its most heartfelt and sincerest sympathies to the families and loved ones of those who perished in the recent apartment building fires in Philadelphia on Jan. 5 and New York City on Jan. 9. Let’s face it. This tragedy could also have happened right here in Northeast Philadelphia.

These tragedies are all the worse because they were preventable. Both buildings were public subsidized housing, where sprinkler systems are not required by fire safety laws. This is a wrongheaded policy that must be corrected.

The members of our union dedicate their lives to fire prevention, and we know this terrain. Some 3,000 lives a year are lost to fires, but virtually every one of them could be prevented. Research shows sprinkler systems reduce fire deaths in homes by 88 percent. There have been no fires involving multiple deaths on properties with fire sprinklers. Certain builder groups block laws that would require residential sprinklers. They do this out of pure financial greed. They should be ashamed of themselves. In the Philadelphia fire, 12 people died, including 9 children. In New York, 17 souls were lost, including 7 kids. All preventable deaths.

Fire safety risks are particularly acute in public housing programs. Such programs predominately serve low-income families and people of color, whose residents have little ability to fight back against blatantly unfair policies and their horrific consequences. Unfortunately, these realities allow builder groups to prevail in this critical debate — but it’s time to turn the tables and fix this problem once and for all.

These recent housing fires underscore the need for policy makers to take urgent action on this issue. In fact, there are three important policies public officials can immediately embrace to end these tragedies. First, Congress should pass President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation, which includes $65 billion for public housing upgrades; sprinkler systems should clearly be prioritized under this policy. Second, Congress should also expedite passage of the bipartisan High-Rise Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act, which gives key tax incentives to property owners for sprinkler retrofits.

Finally, while Philadelphians should fiercely support these federal policies, we should not wait on Washington. City Council should immediately amend the Philadelphia Fire Code to require sprinkler systems for all high-rise residential buildings, including public housing units. This law must be applied to buildings constructed before 1992. These buildings are currently exempted from sprinkler requirements — but they house thousands of poor and low-income families and are exactly the types of properties most at risk.

Make no mistake, these horrific, unimaginable and unconscionable tragedies will be repeated unless reforms are enacted. It’s time for all of us to stand up and be heard on this issue. While it is sadly too late for the souls lost in recent fires, these actions could at least honor their memory. ••

Wayne Miller is business manager of Sprinkler Fitters Local Union 692.

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