In the months following the catastrophic Twin Parks fire in the Bronx, Mayor Eric Adams and city leaders pledged to resurrect legislation that would require older apartment buildings to install sprinklers.
The mayor announced plans to enact “reasonable renovation sprinkler legislation” in March, two months after a fire started by an electric heater killed 17 residents of the Twin Parks building in the Bronx.
But when the city council approved a series of fire safety bills last week in response to the Bronx blaze, an update on sprinklers was not among them.
“We haven’t heard a word about it,” said Dana Campbell, a former Twin Parks resident and supporter of sprinkler legislation. “If we had had a sprinkler system, the fire would not have gotten out of control.”
Built in 1972, the affordable housing tower at Twin Parks North West is one of thousands of buildings in the city without an automatic sprinkler system, which is only required in residential units built after 1999.
Bills passed last week tightened restrictions on self-closing doors, which did not appear to be working properly during the January blaze, which killed scores of people from smoke inhalation. But fire safety experts say sprinklers are among the most effective measures to prevent fatal fires in the first place.
Previous efforts to impose the systems in older buildings have generally failed under pressure from property groups. This process seems to have repeated itself in recent months.
As the mayor gathered alongside city council members to celebrate the fire law package on Wednesday, elected officials made no mention of sprinklers. Shortly after the signing of the bills, which dealt with the regulation of space heaters as well as self-closing doors, several council members said they were unaware of an active effort to upgrade sprinklers.
“I think it’s been looked at,” board chairwoman Adrienne Adams told Gothamist. “There was an issue around that that we have yet to assess.”
Joann Ariola, council member and chair of the city’s fire and emergency management committee, said she hasn’t seen any sprinkler legislation.
A Council source familiar with the talks said the subject of sprinklers was never broached by the Adams administration, despite the mayor’s public statements announcing his intention to work with the Council on “critical legislation”. But a spokesperson for the mayor suggested Gothamist contact members of council for the latest updates, adding that work on future fire safety legislation was ongoing.
City real estate executives suggested the sprinkler push had been dropped.
“Our understanding is that this is not moving at this time,” Michael Johnson, spokesperson for the homeowners group’s Community Housing Improvement Program, wrote in an email to Gothamist.
Frank Ricci, executive vice president of the Rent Stabilization Association, another landlord group, said he had circulated a memo among some elected officials in recent months warning of “significant and undue financial hardship for owners” posed by the imposition of sprinklers in older buildings.
The memo cites the cost of installing pumps and, in some cases, water tanks, as well as the disruption to tenants, who may be forced to move during the installation process.
“It’s kind of a risk-reward situation,” said Peter Varsalona, vice president of RAND engineering and board member of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums. “How many people perish in a fire each year? Considering the city’s population, that’s usually not a lot.
The average number of fire deaths per year has fallen dramatically since the 1970s, when between 250 and 300 were killed each year in city fires. Since 2010, only about 800 people have died in fires in the five boroughs. Experts attribute the decline in part to the spread of sprinklers, which are expected to reduce the civilian fire death rate by 89%, according to a report by the National Fire Protection Association.
Public debate about expanding the mandate tends to follow tragedy. In 1999, after two deadly high-rise fires, Mayor Rudy Giuliani agreed to make sprinklers mandatory in new construction over four units – but stopped short of including existing buildings amid opposition promoters, apparently led in part by Donald Trump.
More recently, after a fire in the Bronx in 2017 killed 13 people, legislation was introduced that would have made sprinklers mandatory in older apartment buildings over 40 feet. After feedback from building owners, council members said they would consider the bill. They left office last year without introducing a new version.
Other local governments have looked at the costs and benefits of sprinklers and come to different conclusions. Following a fire that killed 24 people in an apartment complex, the city of Los Angeles, California required all residential buildings built before 1943 to be sprinklered. The state of Florida has required the same for all high-rise buildings since 1994, while San Antonio, Texas requires common areas of residential buildings to include sprinklers.
New York City has also taken steps to further adopt the fire suppression system. Under Local Law 26, passed in 2004, office buildings over 100 feet were given a 15-year window to install automatic sprinklers. But ensuring compliance with this law has been a challenge.
As of this month, there were 415 office buildings that still hadn’t installed sprinklers, according to a Department of Buildings spokesperson. Starting in January, the fine for non-compliance was increased to $5,000, with an additional $1,000 added each month.
Commercial owners have accused the city of slow inspections or failing to communicate rules regarding the requirement. On Wednesday, hours before signing the fire safety bills, Adams was confronted by one of those landlords at a breakfast hosted by an association for a better New York. The mayor responded sympathetically.
“We need to get our house in order,” he said. “My municipal agencies need to be more pro-business. They must stay away from bureaucracy and bureaucracy.