Deadly Fairmount Fire

Bill inspired by deadly Fairmount fire would mandate better smoke alarms in public housing nationwide

The legislation provides funding for education, but not directly to help landlords install new detectors — and PHA says cost is a big issue.

In January, firefighters responded quickly, but there were no working smoke alarms in this Fairmount rowhome where 12 people died

In January, firefighters responded quickly, but there were no working smoke alarms in this Fairmount rowhome where 12 people died

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

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Federal fire safety policy directly inspired by the deadly Fairmount fire in January is headed to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, where sponsors believe it will be passed.

The legislation would require smoke alarms that cannot be removed or shut down in homes owned by any authorities that receive Dept. of Housing and Urban Development assistance, or landlords whose tenants receive HUD support. U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, who represents Pa.’s 4th district in Montgomery County, sponsored the bill.

All but one of the smoke detectors in Philadelphia Housing Authority scatter-site rowhome destroyed by the January blaze were inoperable. The new law aims to eliminate that possibility.

“It was a sad impetus for this bill,” Dean told Billy Penn, speaking of the nine children and three adult sisters who died in the Fairmount fire. “I can’t process that horror.”

Known as HR 7981, or The Public and Federally Assisted Housing Fire Safety Act of 2022, the bill would mandate hardwired smoke alarm systems for any new housing built with HUD funds. It would also require that sealed, tamper-resistant alarms with 10-year batteries be installed in previously constructed units.

In Philadelphia, new units are already built with hardwired systems, PHA President and CEO Kelvin Jeremiah noted in January. He warned that “huge investments” would be needed to upgrade pre-existing homes with better smoke alarms.

A PHA spokesperson said the authority has no comment on the legislation, or how it would affect their operations.

Dean’s bill contains $2 million for a HUD-led national education campaign on health and safety requirements and fire safety equipment, but no appropriations to help agencies with installation.

“We’ve reached out to HUD, but they have not given us a cost estimate,” Dean said. “Cost is definitely a factor, but the cost of losing multiple families is far greater.”

To avoid that tragic toll, the Philadelphia Fire Department installs smoke alarms free of charge. There’s a roughly 60-day waiting period, but a call to 311 can get the application process started.

Missing and inoperable smoke detectors have been an issue nationwide, ranking 15th in a 2015 HUD list of the top 25 issues uncovered in reviews of public housing. Faulty fire exits followed in 16th place.

After the Fairmount fire and the even bigger blaze in the Bronx that followed four days later, Dean’s staff was looking for a legislative fix, she said.

The bill is cosponsored by a bipartisan group of representatives in the Philadelphia region: Reps. Dwight Evans (D), Mary Gay Scanlon (D), Brendan Boyle (D), and Brian Fitzpatrick (R).

Dean said passage was likely because of the party-crossing coalition. “Also telling in committee is that there was no opposition,” Dean said. The bill passed out of the Committee on Financial Services by a voice vote last week.

Senator Bob Casey introduced the Senate version of the bill last Wednesday, where it was referred to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.

For general advice, Dean echoed fire safety professionals and stressed the need for vigilance.

“We’ve all had the experience of a smoke detector going rogue, say you’re cooking, and you disconnect it,” said Dean. But it’s unacceptable, in her view, to not reattach the device as soon as possible.

“You should not go a single hour without working alarms.”

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