Public housing

Federal mandate for smoke alarms for social housing? Philadelphia fire inspires policy change

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

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

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The federal fire safety policy directly inspired by the deadly Fairmount fire in January is heading to the floor of the US House of Representatives, where sponsors believe it will pass.

The legislation would require smoke detectors that cannot be removed or turned off in homes owned by authorities who receive assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or landlords whose tenants receive support from HUD. U.S. Representative Madeleine Dean, who represents Pennsylvania’s 4th District in Montgomery County, sponsored the bill.

All but one of the smoke detectors in the townhouse at the Philadelphia Housing Authority dispersal site destroyed by the January fire were inoperable. The new law aims to eliminate this possibility.

“It was a sad push 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 this horror.”

Known as HR 7981, or Public and Federally Subsidized Housing Fire Safety Act of 2022, the bill would make hard-wired smoke detector systems mandatory for all new homes built with HUD funds. It would also require sealed, tamper-proof alarms with 10-year batteries to be installed in units already built.

In Philadelphia, new units are already being built with wired 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 detectors.

A PHA spokesman said the authority had no comment on the legislation or how it would affect its 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 appropriation to help agencies with the installation.

“We contacted HUD, but they didn’t give us a cost estimate,” Dean said. “Cost is certainly a factor, but the cost of losing multiple families is far greater.”

To avoid this tragic toll, the Philadelphia Fire Department installs free smoke alarms. There is a waiting period of approximately 60 days, but a call to 311 can initiate the application process.

Missing and inoperable smoke detectors were a problem nationally, ranking 15th in a 2015 HUD list of the top 25 issues discovered in social housing reviews. Faulty emergency exits followed in 16th place.

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

The bill is co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of Philadelphia-area representatives: Representatives Dwight Evans (D), Mary Gay Scanlon (D), Brendan Boyle (D) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R).

Dean said the move was likely due to the party coalition. “What is also telling in committee is that there was no opposition,” Dean said. The bill was passed by the Financial Services Committee by voice vote last week.

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

For general advice, Dean echoed fire safety professionals and stressed the need to be vigilant.

“We’ve all had the experience of a smoke detector going out of control, say you’re cooking and you disconnect it,” Dean said. But it is unacceptable, according to her, not to reconnect the device as soon as possible.

“You shouldn’t go a single hour without the alarms working.”