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This month's deadly fires raise questions about national fire safety


This month, two deadly fires hit two major American cities. One in a Philadelphia row house killed 12 people. Another in an apartment building in the Bronx killed 17. Both included children. It's rare for urban fires to claim as many lives as these did, but their occurrence in short succession is raising a lot of questions. Joining us with a national perspective is Lori Moore-Merrell. She's the U.S. fire administrator for FEMA. Thank you for making time to talk with us about this.

LORI MOORE-MERRELL: Thank you so much for having me. And it's a pleasure to be with you. And I'm looking forward to addressing what you have just mentioned.

PFEIFFER: Great. It's such an important issue. Let's start with what we know so far about the Philadelphia fire, since it happened first on January 5. How do investigators think it started, and what other factors were at play?

MOORE-MERRELL: From the report from Commissioner Thiel, who is essentially the fire chief and emergency manager in Philadelphia, there was an ignition of a Christmas tree, and it appears that that ignition was from a lighter, so at some point a lighter and a Christmas tree came in contact.

PFEIFFER: And then, just four days after the Philadelphia tragedy, a fire in a relatively modern 19-story building in the Bronx broke out, apparently due to a malfunctioning space heater. Would you explain how a fire in one apartment affected that entire building?

MOORE-MERRELL: What we know - and again, I have to say that the full investigation is still underway by FDNY - what is known is that it was a space heater. There was a space heater in an apartment on the third floor. When the family exited - which is great. They were able to evacuate. Everyone got out safely. However, a door did not close to that apartment, giving not only air to the fire for spreading capability - the fuels and the air allowed that fire to spread, amassing a lot of very heavy smoke. So again, a lot of unanswered questions at this point, but there is good theory, working theory, that the smoke was able to travel through the building based on the open doors and potentially the HVAC system as well.

PFEIFFER: FEMA has compiled statistics about who is most likely to die in fires. What did you find out about that? And do the Philadelphia and Bronx fires fit into those patterns?

MOORE-MERRELL: Yes, both of these fires, the Bronx and Philadelphia, fit squarely into the data that we have seen and the data patterns that we've seen over time. We know that African Americans are disproportionately affected by fire and fire fatalities.

PFEIFFER: And why is that? Why are they disproportionately affected?

MOORE-MERRELL: Our data does not speak necessarily or directly to the why, other than to say these were more impoverished areas, older buildings that are not sprinkled. Are all of these variables contributing factors? Yes. Can I tell you or point to directly one of them? No. I can tell you that we must, as a society, have this very difficult conversation and begin to weight these factors and how they influence and lead to fire fatalities.

PFEIFFER: When we look at the history of urban fires, they used to be quite common a century ago, but fire safety has made huge advances. What are some of the key measures that were put into place that made fire less likely? And in these cases, are we seeing that the measures failed or the measures weren't there?

MOORE-MERRELL: So one of the big things we know is that automatic suppression systems work.

PFEIFFER: Like sprinklers.

MOORE-MERRELL: That is exactly right. So we have building codes and standards that are in place in some areas, particularly for newer properties, but we don't have enough retrofit codes and standards that are enforced to be able to really make a change in a lot of our older infrastructure. And we need to, you know, take more of a stand on that as a nation.

PFEIFFER: Both of these buildings were considered affordable for low-income residents. Are there better ways to protect tenants in these type of buildings beyond what you've already described?

MOORE-MERRELL: We have to make sure that these fire safety features are in place and that they're monitored, that they are inspected, that we have the capability to be able to check, to be sure that the safety features are working and that they're in place. But more often than not, fire departments don't have the capacities to be able to put people on the ground to do this. When they are struggling with their own budgets and their own budget fights to avoid cuts, then that's a problem.

PFEIFFER: Given everything we've talked about, how safe do you think people in urban housing situations like these should feel these days when it comes to the risk of a buildingwide fire?

MOORE-MERRELL: Well, in general, you know, there is some responsibility, certainly, on the property owners and managers, but also I think we really do have to get people to understand and take some personal accountability for their own safety. And that is important. When you've got a smoke alarm and you take the batteries out of it - right? - you have now just increased your risk exponentially. And so we need the public to step up and take some responsibility for their own safety as well. Listen to the safety messages. If you have an opportunity to, you know, close the door when you are evacuating, close the door. Make it a reflex. Practice these. Look at your egress. Do you know how to get out of your building? We have to work together, and we have to come together to change this equation.

PFEIFFER: That's Lori Moore-Merrell, the U.S. fire administrator for FEMA. Thank you and especially for the safety recommendations you passed along.

MOORE-MERRELL: It's my pleasure. Thank you so much for getting this kind of message out. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.