Bills Would Strengthen Building Codes to Prevent Fires

April 7, 2017 | Law & Public Safety, Politics
Lawmakers will consider legislation to prevent large-scale fires.

By Brenda Flanagan

“When the first flames popped out, one of the building officials looked at me and said, ‘Mike, this is going to burn to the ground,’” said Edgewater Mayor Michael McPartland.

Edgewater’s mayor vividly remembers when firefighters first responded to the Avalon apartment complex.

“It really didn’t look like the place was ready to burn down. There was a lot of smoke. And the firemen were looking for where the fire was because they couldn’t find it. It was in the walls,” he said.

And it was spreading fast. Firefighters scrambled to evacuate tenants as flames suddenly ripped through the four-story complex.

“At that time, we still had people trapped. We were saving people from back balconies. We had six firemen trapped on the back deck that we had to rescue off there,” said Edgewater Fire Chief Thomas Jacobson.

Like many apartment complexes, the Avalon was built with so-called “light wood” construction. Developers like it because it’s cheaper. But burn trials confirm, fire consumes light wood structures far more quickly than older construction built with denser wood.

“We call this ‘toothpick construction.’ Why? Because it’s so light that a fire will burn through it in two to three minutes,” said Rich Silvia, president of the State Fire Prevention and Protection Association and chief fire marshal in Saddle River.

Fire officials say that compounds another hazard: in multi-story apartment buildings, New Jersey’s current building code only requires sprinkler systems in spaces where people live — like bedrooms — not in empty spaces like walls. That’s how fire spread in the Avalon disaster. Now, new legislation would demand higher, National Fire Protection Association standards in light wood construction.

“Requiring sprinklers not only in residential areas, but also in combustible void spaces — closets, bathrooms and attics. New Jersey construction codes should adopt the stronger, NFPA 13 standard, and I’m proud Speaker [Vincent] Prieto and I have worked together to develop the legislation that will make that happen,” said Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco.

“So I think this bill is striking a balance that still allows lightweight construction in a safe manner to be built, and protection is there. I think it will add minimal cost. That way it’ll still be able to be built in a density that builders will want to build it,” Prieto said.

One bill applies to buildings over two stories and also requires sprinklered attics and masonry firewalls between attached structures. Another bill requires a fire watchman at major residential construction sites during times building crews aren’t present. Firefighters say it’s a step in the right direction.

“It’s something, to go. I’d still rather see non-combustible materials in buildings of that magnitude, but it’s a start,” Jacobson said.

The county executive says Avalon has already agreed to abide by the stricter fire safety regulations. The speaker hopes to get the bills passed by the end of June.