September 27, 2017

Narrow Focus on Apartment Fire Hazards Risks Sensationalizing a Nuanced Issue

To the Editor:

Last week, you reported on the fears that some Princeton residents feel about timber-framed apartment construction [“Senior Living Complex Proposed for Harrison Street Spurs Fire Safety Concerns,” page one, Sept. 20]. I am concerned, however, that a narrow focus on apartment fire hazards runs the risk of sensationalizing a nuanced issue, which in turn could result in safety outcomes exactly opposite of those intended.

Here are some considerations that I hope can “turn down the heat” on this issue:

Fires in personal homes are more deadly than fires in apartment structures. In 2015, 70 percent of fires occurred in to one or two family home structures, but these fires accounted for 84 percent of total fire-related deaths;

There were 3,300 fire deaths in the U.S. last year, compared to 35,000 deaths from car crashes. In other words, on any given day the risk of death by auto for a Princetonian is roughly 10 times greater than by fire;

Third, fire risk in New Jersey is low compared to the rest of the country. According to the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), only four states have lower rates of fire death per 100,000 than New Jersey: Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and California.

Together, these facts suggest that, in New Jersey, it is safer to live in an apartment setting that doesn’t require daily driving to meet basic needs (as on North Harrison Street) than it is to live in a single family home, especially for senior citizens, and even more so for the vast majority without the substantial means needed for home-based care.

I strongly agree with others in Princeton that fire safety is an important concern. But just as President Trump’s sensationalized language about immigration risks is used to justify the grotesque construction of a border wall, I worry that alarmist language about fire safety could create a hostile environment that would prevent the construction in Princeton of much-needed housing for seniors of all income levels.

Housing that increases safety for seniors can also be constructed safely. Let’s work together to make this happen.

Nat Bottigheimer

White Pine Lane