With Increased Size of Developments Fire Can Spread, Is Harder to Suppress
To the Editor:
Regarding the page one story, “Fire in Maplewood Hits AvalonBay Site Still Under Construction” [Town Topics, Feb. 8], a key problem with lightweight wood construction used in large multi-unit residences like the one in Maplewood, in Princeton, and many other newer developments for families, seniors and students, is that overall size, including area and height, is ever increasing. As a result, if a fire occurs it can spread more readily to more units and becomes more difficult for fire fighters to suppress. Under the current code, 4 — 5 stories are allowed.
Even if masonry firewalls are used, the current code allows too many units between firewalls (well over 100 vertical units in multiple stories). Older multi-unit residences were often limited to two or three stories and were of brick or heavier wood that burns less quickly than the lightweight wood now used. The argument of some developers for this less fire safe and moderately less expensive construction is “affordable housing.” However, this type of construction is also routinely used in highly profitable luxury style multi-unit housing.
The U.S. code writing entity, The ICC (International Code Council, a confusing misnomer) is not a government agency. It works on behalf of its partners, primarily U.S. groups in the building industries. The ICC sets minimum standards and its codes have allowed the construction of ever larger residential multi-unit structures with lightweight wood nationwide. These structures are not required to have internal masonry wall construction. Princeton got such masonry walls at the former hospital construction site as a concession after the AvalonBay Edgewater fire. States have limited opportunity (every 3 years) to give input to the ICC but this is often not as effective as it should be due to strong lobbying efforts by a powerful industry at the state and national level with minimal public input and less renter/buyer consumer knowledge of underlying construction before contract signing.
Several bills were introduced in the New Jersey legislature following the Edgewater AvalonBay fire in January, 2015 which displaced 500 people who were living in 240 destroyed apartments. (This is in addition to the same company’s year 2000 fire in a large nearly completed structure on the same site which destroyed 9 surrounding homes, and another conflagration this February 4 in Maplewood where reportedly 24/7 fire watch guards were on duty.) The most comprehensive of the bills is S1632 (Senate)/A3770 (Assembly) are sponsored by prominent legislators: Senators Bateman, Turner, and Weinberg and Assembly members Gusciora, Muoio, and Zwicker.
Even if no loss of life or injury to residents or first responders occurs, the external/social costs of conflagrations are great including: displaced residents, destruction of neighborhoods, lost revenues, and fire fighting/repair costs to municipalities and local businesses. Primary protective remedies should include:
1) limiting the currently allowed area and height of lightweight wood structures;
2) making masonry internal walls a requirement with fewer units between these walls;
3) requiring the completion of construction before allowing occupancy especially if the occupied and under-construction structures are attached.
At the municipal level we should continue to be pro-active with our state legislators and the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.
P.S. I am a member of the Princeton Local Emergency Planning Committee which meets quarterly. However, I am writing as an individual.