Protecting against fire and floods in your NYC apartment

Emily Myers: (00:01)
I'm Emily Myers, and this is the Brick Underground Podcast covering everything you need to know about New York City real estate, whether you are buying, selling, renting, or renovating. This episode is about building and apartment safety. In January, there was a tragic fire in an apartment building in the Bronx in which 17 people were killed—the result of a faulty space heater, and then a failure to contain the resulting smoke and flames. Well, this put attention on some of the laws the city has to protect tenants specifically about self-closing doors that can slow the spread of fire and give residents more time to leave the building. Large newer apartment buildings are required to have sprinkler systems and doors that swing close. Landlords need to provide smoke alarms and make sure exits are clear. And there should be a fire escape plan posted on every apartment door, but that's not keeping everyone safe and fire. And it isn't the only danger New Yorkers need to be thinking about. Towards the end of last year, we saw deadly flooding in basement apartments after the remnants of Hurricane Ida hit the city. So how can you be best informed and best prepared to stay safe in your apartment? Well, to answer some of these questions, I'm joined by Robert O'Brien co-owner of New York Fire Consultants and a former F D N Y firefighter. Robert, welcome.

Robert O'Brien: (01:27)
Thank you.

Emily Myers: (01:27)
Do you have information on what the number one cause of fires is in apartment buildings in New York?

Robert O'Brien: (01:34)
A lot of the fires occur at night in, in the winter months. A lot are caused by space heaters, extension cords, cooking food on the stove, smoking. There's a new problem that we have been made aware of here in the city. It's, uh, these, portable scooters and e-bikes with these, um, electric batteries. It's very dangerous situation. And, uh, it's caused a multitude of fires—over a hundred fires have been recorded in New York city and a there are a few deaths that resulted from that.

Emily Myers: (02:10)
And what, what's the sort of main danger then? That they're being charged overnight and they're overheating?

Robert O'Brien: (02:15)
Yes, never charge these bikes or scooters or hover boards right after you used them. They have to have a cooling period. These batteries are meant to be charged under supervision. When these batteries hit a certain point, you hear a popping sound. And once that popping sound goes, that means the cells and the batteries are starting to fail. Once they start to fail they ignite, the puff of smoke that's emitted from these is a very toxic, highly toxic chemical that can asphyxiate you almost instantly. Um, so these are extremely, extremely dangerous and they have to be used with the most extreme caution.

Emily Myers: (02:57)
Is it a case of buying batteries that are sort of certified in some way? Are there standards that you should be looking for when you're buying equipment?

Robert O'Brien: (03:06)
It's with extension cords, it's with space heaters, with these batteries, it's really any kind of electronic product that you, you would buy. You wanna look for the UL listing: Underwriters Laboratories. That means that the product has been extensively tested. A lot of these products are made in other places around the world, and there are no standards and they're made with cheaper materials. They're made very rapidly. They don't undergo testing and they're purchased here in the United States for much less than what the, you know, the approved battery might sell for. Right? You cannot put a price on a human life. Fire is the only thing in the world that does not discriminate. It strikes, it strikes quickly. And that was evidenced in the fire, the tragedy, that happened in the Bronx.

Emily Myers: (04:01)
That was a space heater. There are rules around space heaters. You can't have kerosene or propane space heaters. So what's your advice, for space heaters and safety around that kind of equipment?

Robert O'Brien: (04:17)
My instant reaction is to say, don't use them, but that's, um, you know, that's just the pipe dream because unfortunately, uh, as evidenced, um, in, in this past fire, there was a need for people to find a source of heat. A lot of people will use their oven or their stove, uh, to turn on, you know, a lot of elderly people, a lot of people on fixed incomes living in some of these properties. They, you know, there's minimal or no heat in the apartment and, you know, you have to stay warm and, you know, they resort to other means these means are very dangerous and, and people need to be educated about the dangers surrounding it. Everything can be replaced. You cannot replace a life. And that's the bottom line.

Emily Myers: (05:03)
What tenants do need to know is that they should be calling their landlord and the city actually, if the temperature is below 68 degrees, when it's 55 degrees outside. There are rules about this—it's called heat season. And it runs between October 1st and May the 31st. It means your building owner needs basically to put the heat on and at night, uh, during this period, the indoor temperature must be above 62 degrees, and you should also have hot water, 120 degrees, year round. So you do need to be reaching out to your landlord and if nothing happens and you're not getting heating in your apartment, you can call 31 1. And that potentially could result in inspections and fines for your landlord. So there is a recourse for tenants who, whose apartments are too cold.

Robert O'Brien: (05:50)
There are some landlords that are very good and they, you know, there's never an issue and the heat is there. And then sometimes the heat is too much, but some of these landlords that to save a dollar and, you know, at the expense of people, well, you're not really saving a dollar because you're forcing these people to use these devices that are fire hazards. And the result is injury, death, property loss, uh, you know, so in the long run, if you did the right thing and supplied the heat is necessary, we really wouldn't be having this conversation.

Emily Myers: (06:24)
Actually the Department of Housing Preservation and Development also has tips,—five ways to keep your building fire safe. And this is the self-closing doors that I mentioned. These obviously weren't working in the Bronx; smoke alarms; a fire escape plan; clear and unobstructed exits. That's actually key isn't it? Being able to get out without potentially blocked exits. And of course the self-closing doors, the fire that happened in, in the Bronx, the speed of it, as, as you've mentioned, is, is what's surprised many people. What should you know about how to, to block smoke? Is it putting a wet towel down if you can?

Robert O'Brien: (07:05)
The biggest problem that I see is every year, um, the city mandates that, uh, landlords and property management, uh, developers, owners are required to send out, uh, it used to be called a fire safety plan. Now it's a Fire and Emergency Preparedness Guide. We prepare thousands of these guides and mail them out every year. The amount that we get back as junk mail are unbelievable.

Emily Myers: (07:41)
You mean you are getting it returned to you?

Robert O'Brien: (07:44)
Yes, it's returned.

Emily Myers: (07:45)
You are obviously providing it, but the landlord also needs to provide this information. Is that right?

Robert O'Brien: (07:51)
Well yes, they hire people like ourselves to prepare it. One of the big things that we see is the self-closing doors. These are required in all multiple dwellings, whether it's three family, whether it's 300 families, self-closing door is a fire rated door. When you push that door, open, that door should swing back on its own and close. And it should, you should hear a click and a latch. That means that door works. If for any reason it doesn't do any of those things. The door doesn't work.

Emily Myers: (08:29)

Robert O'Brien: (08:30)
And in a fire as was evidenced in the Bronx, people fled that apartment and the door didn't close on a latch. It would have allowed the fire and the smoke to come out in, into that hallway. And it really hampered the, uh, the first responders, the firefighters trying to crawl in there. They, they were crawling in - picture a brick pizza oven. That's what it felt like they were crawling into, and it was as close to hell as anybody will ever see.

Emily Myers: (09:00)
Oh, terrible.

Robert O'Brien: (09:02)
In fact, it appears to be a non, a non combustible structure. In that type of structure, unless the fire is directly below you or to either side of you, you are safer in your apartment than wandering into the hall and trying to get to the stairwell. And it clearly says that on the notice that must be posted on the back of the door now in a combustible building, these are the older buildings, no matter what you exit immediately, no matter where the fire is in the building, you don't get your pocketbook, your cat, your dog. That's very sad to say I'm a pet lover. And, but that type building you get out. Immediately. And you never go back until you're told by the fire department,.

Emily Myers: (09:49)
A lot of housing choices come down to the raw economics, but there are questions perhaps you should be asking when you're looking at a property, looking at a building to see that it's well managed and identifying self closing doors that work is one of those things.

Robert O'Brien: (10:03)
Well, anything in, in a multiple dwelling, which is three families or more, when you walk into the common area or above the mailbox, there should be a fire emergency preparedness guide. If you see that, and then you look for other things, you look for fire extinguishers,

Emily Myers: (10:18)
You know, with regard to fire extinguishers are landlords - I don't see literature saying that landlords need to supply fire extinguishers?

Robert O'Brien: (10:28)
In like elevator, motor rooms, machinery rooms, um, in, in, in different areas in the building. Yes, they are required.

Emily Myers: (10:35)
Not in your apartment though?

Robert O'Brien: (10:37)
Well, no, that's not up to a landlord. That's an individual like you, you you're, you're in your apartment. Like a lot of the presentations that we give question and answer periods to residents, we always try to stress. You buy a 10 pound or five or 10 pound, fire extinguisher, never with a plastic top, always with a metal top - that plastic with a heat and cold, the contraction and the expansion sometimes causes those plastic tops to explode in the middle of the night. Fire starts. It could be between where you sleep and your means of egress. If you don't have that extinguisher, what do you do? Yeah. In the kitchen, it's very important to have one. Most people stick it under the, sink and when you need it, you gotta look for it. You're digging through all of the bottles and it's way in the back, and then it's too late. So it's about educating people to have these devices readily at hand. Um, and, have the knowledge to be able to use them. It's just amazing how many people that we poll, they have, oh, I have an extinguisher. Do you know how to use it? Um, no.

Emily Myers: (11:44)
Yes. I may well be in that category. So how do you get familiar with how to use a fire extinguisher?

Robert O'Brien: (11:50)
Buy your fire extinguisher and read the pictorial on the side. Okay. And, you know, we offer training with a, um, a digital fire extinguisher trainer that, uh, is hands on and it's a laser instead of the chemical that's emitted, but the closest thing to the real use of an extinguisher, you, could imagine, but, you know, a lot people, um, don't have that capability. We try to do that. And in, in, when we do the staff training, the porters, the janitors, the doormen, these are the people that see everything every day, they being trained in what to look for and what to recognize is critical.

Emily Myers: (12:31)
Is that a good question for a landlord then? You know, when was your last safety training?

Robert O'Brien: (12:35)
Yes. When you purchase a co-op or a condo. Yeah. Part of that package that you receive at the closing has to be one of the fire emergency preparedness guides for that building in that package. I would love to see that as soon as you rent a, - my daughter is a nurse. She rented a property in an area when I first got to see the area and, and in the building, she was gonna live in. First thing I looked at where's the fire safety plan. Second thing I looked at, I went to the elevator. I went up to the top floor, walked up to the roof, walked down the stairs. I'm looking for things as a firefighter and I as a father.

Emily Myers: (13:15)
Or both. Had she done what you wanted? I mean, had she picked the right kind of place?

Robert O'Brien: (13:20)
It was good. And, you know, um, like my children have lived with it, like most firefighters children. So it certainly becomes almost second nature to them. They've heard it so many times they know the basics of stop, drop, and roll. They know in an emergency to get out. Um, one of the biggest things that that really gets me is if your children are old enough to leave your side, they are old enough to know. Yeah. Basement, apartments. I mean, flooding, I mean, simple things like that. I mean, all of a sudden you're living in a basement apartment, heavy rains from water could come flooding in, what are you do? My mom told me not to leave the apartment. No, get out.

Emily Myers: (13:59)
Yeah. Okay. So your advice specifically for parents is to make sure that your children, because of course children can be left alone in apartments, and there can be, like you say, flooding fires during that time, make sure that they are fully briefed on the steps that they should be taking if there's an emergency?

Robert O'Brien: (14:23)
Yes. I mean, if they're old enough to be left on their own, they need to understand the dangers and they need to understand what to do in case of hands down.

Emily Myers: (14:35)
Yes. People living in basement departments are particularly vulnerable. Do you have specific advice? If a basement is legal?

Robert O'Brien: (14:44)
From what I understand, if there's an electric meter or a gas meter, it's legal. But in, in torrential rain like that, my biggest thing is, you know, I have a private home and I clean the drains. I'm fanatic about it. Like this last storm we had right before the storm, I noticed one of the drains was clogged with leaves. II went, swept them, straight them up because if that drain is clogged with those leaves, where's the water gonna go? It backs up, it backs up, it backs up, it backs up, boom. Then it's down to the level of that apartment. It begins to rise and then there's no stopping it. You know, there's a lot of things. And a lot of these, they're not up to code.

Emily Myers: (15:32)
Yeah. Some basements do meet the safety requirements needed to be legal apartments, but not all of them. And..generally very of them, generally the space needs to have enough light and ventilation. It needs windows and doors. Every room in a basement, uh, must have at least one window. If you don't think you could climb out of that basement in an emergency, or if the window's too high or too narrow, or if the exterior window sill is I think less than six inches above ground level, it's probably illegal. And of course the ceiling height, I think, needs to be seven feet.

Robert O'Brien: (16:07)
I think it's seven foot.

Emily Myers: (16:08)
You do see apartments with a sort of basement duplex. Uh, but there are also rules about, um, a celler. A celler has basically more than one half of its height below curb level and usually has no windows. And it is always, uh, uh, illegal. You should never be using, uh, a celler as a place to live. And actually another clue is the certificate of occupancy. That document that tells you whether you are actually allowed to be living in the space at all.

Robert O'Brien: (16:36)
A lot of people don't realize that they can go on to the Department of Buildings, website, and actually type in the borough and the block address. And there's a way to navigate it. And you could actually see if there's a certificate of occupancy for that property. Yeah.

Emily Myers: (16:53)
And actually it's, it's worth arming yourself with information about how to spot an apartment that has been flooded in the past.

Robert O'Brien: (17:00)
Yeah. On that website, previous violations, uh, by a Building Department would be issued, you know, when you're looking at not only basement apartments, but some of these apartments that you were in always look for a second means of egress, especially in a basement apartment. Um, if it to duplex apartment, the markings in the apartment building have to be low to the ground, indicating that it's a duplex or a non duplex. You see the decals for pets on a door. Well, you have to have these decals similar to that, marking that, is it a duplex? Is it not a duplex? The apartment number? Because the fire fighters are crawling on their knees and when they hit that with the light, it has to be photoluminescent same as the stairwells. It has to be photoluminescent markings and stairwells in high rises. A lot of apartments have gone to photoluminescent markings because if you lose power in a blackout, you at least can see the steps.

Emily Myers: (17:53)
So we have lots of articles on every aspect of buying, selling, and renting in New York City at, including plenty of information about tenants rights and how to negotiate your rent either when you are signing a lease for the first time or when you are renewing. We also have articles with in depth neighborhood intel, our market reports take a look at some of the data on deals and leases. It can be helpful as you navigate your housing goals, whatever they are. We also love answering your questions. So please do get in touch either via the website or through Twitter and Facebook, sign up for our newsletter, a check out our rent calculator. We have lots of helpful tools. So I'm talking to Robert O'Brien from New York Fire Consultants about building and apartment safety. You've mentioned getting out of the apartment at speed. Do you advise having a grab bag of items? it's something that I keep thinking I should have...

Robert O'Brien: (18:52)
Most definitely.

Emily Myers: (18:53)
What would you put in that bag?

Robert O'Brien: (18:55)
Basically medicine. If you have a pet dog food, some cash copies of birth certificates or insurance policies set of clothing, um, maybe have a couple bottles of water. Another good tip is always have in that go bag, a working flashlight and some extra batteries. I have a working flashlight with that fire extinguisher, my bedroom, right on my nights in a little powerful L E D flashlight. Great. In the middle of the night, lose power, at least you can see.

Emily Myers: (19:26)

Robert O'Brien: (19:27)
One thing I, alluded to before, once you are out, you stay out, you don't go back. You don't go back to the kitten for the puppy, whatever you let the firemen, you, you let the firemen or the police officer know, Hey, look, I'm an apartment 4gG I ran out so fast. I left my, my pet. They will go and they will search for that animal. We've seen that numerous times too.

Emily Myers: (19:52)
What about personal safety? Um, not to be alarmist, but how do people protect themselves? Um, and you know, walking around the building, making sure that doors close before someone comes in behind someone who perhaps isn't, a resident, that kind of thing. What about, do you have advice on personal safety?

Robert O'Brien: (20:12)
It's called situational awareness. The biggest thing is have your head on a swivel like that, bobble doll in the back of the car, what bothers me the most? And I, I drill this into my kids and I, I drill this into anybody that we speak to. We become as a society, so dependent on that cell phone the iPhone, the EarPods, the instant communication. This is a problem in the street. Look around you, be aware.

Emily Myers: (20:41)
Is there anything else that you think, uh, residents of New York should know about how to keep themselves safe,

Robert O'Brien: (20:48)
Educate themselves, have your eyes open, be aware, you know, uh, lend a hand to your neighbors, take those ear pods outta your ears. Be very careful on the subways. It's situational awareness. You have to be aware of your surroundings, whether you're in your building, whether you're in your apartment, you're traveling to and from,

Emily Myers: (21:08)
I've been talking to Robert O'Brien, co-founder of New York fire consultants. Robert, thank you so much.

Robert O'Brien: (21:13)
Thank you for having us. We really appreciate it. And you can go to our website at, um, NY fire,, people, anybody that has any questions or whatever, they can shoot us an email at info, a NY fire safe. And we do, we, we do answer our emails and we try to be as prompt as possible.

Emily Myers: (21:32)
Thank you, Robert.