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Nina in New York: Fire Safety Has a Long Way to Go

An extra-alarm fire broke out in the high-rise at 500 W. 43rd St. Sunday. (Credit: Keith Lowry /NYCFireWire)

An extra-alarm fire broke out in the high-rise at 500 W. 43rd St. Sunday. (Credit: Keith Lowry /NYCFireWire)

A lighthearted look at news, events, culture and everyday life in New York. The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
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By Nina Pajak

Part of becoming a mother, for me, has been learning to accept the fact that the universe is about forty million times more terrifying than it ever was. To contexualize that figure, keep in mind that this is coming from an educated 31-year-old who, previous to childbirth, still checked the deep ends of swimming pools for sharks.

You just never know. You know?
I’ll acknowledge that I’m a little bit crazy. For one thing, I’ve always been a local newshound, which means that my head is filled with horrible, upsetting incidents of violence and tragedy in what is essentially my own backyard. But I’m also a little bit completely sane. The world is a genuinely treacherous place, and having a daughter to protect hasn’t so much magnified the danger for me as clarified it.

House fires—or more specifically, apartment fires caused by neighbors over whose behavior you have no control—have always topped the list of my greatest fears (non-aqueous). So when I read about the high rise fire in Hell’s Kitchen that resulted in the completely avoidable death of Daniel McClung and severe injury to his husband, the hairs on the back of my neck went up. And when I received an email from a friend saying she’d gone to high school with the surviving spouse and was helping to publicize a change.org petition to convince the mayor to propose and sign a new “Stay or Go” fire safety bill requiring public address systems in all residential buildings, I thought, this really hit closer to home, and yes please. And on Monday, City Council members indeed announced the legislation, which brought about reports that brought to light the fact that only buildings built or substantially renovated after 1999 ARE REQUIRED TO HAVE SPRINKLER SYSTEMS.

So then I thought, wait. Wait. What?

I feel like I cheated death living in prewars for all those years.

The PA systems are already present in many buildings built after 2008, and are evidently a less expensive installation prospect than new sprinklers. And don’t get me wrong, it sounds like a bang-up idea. Say there’s a fire in your building. Rather than unknowingly running towards the danger in an effort to flee, the fire marshall gets on and calmly tells you what’s going on and to sit tight and open a window or take stairway A and not B or what have you. Lives saved. Bam. Simple.

But do you know what else is simple? Putting water on fires. Like what if we had some sort of mandatory hookup in which dispensers of water were placed in ceilings and, if triggered by some sort of common sign of fire, they would then dispense water automatically thereby reducing the need for people 18 floors up even to wonder if they ought evacuate their apartments.

This is going to come across as naive, but why, again, can’t we have both?

I understand that things cost money, but so does repairing a building after a fire. And I don’t expect this to resonate with the landlord population in New York City, but there is that nagging, little argument that the actual lives of actual human beings are at stake.

Pssht. I know. Dumb. Who cares, right? Except that human beings often pay rent, and then more rent, and then 20% increases on that rent. So perhaps landlords can chew on that for a while.

I no longer live in an apartment building, so I suppose the resolution of these issues does nothing to allay my own fears. But all the same, I’d feel a lot better living in a city that puts some muscle and just an eensy, weensy bit of brainpower behind preventing people from dying in fires.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go buy 10 more fire extinguishers and turn off my gas and all my electronics and my lights and wrap my family in fireproof blankets.

Nina Pajak is a writer living with her husband, daughter and dog in Queens. Connect with Nina on Twitter at @NinaPajak!