More than four years after a massive blaze destroyed an Edgewater apartment complex and temporarily displaced more than 1,000 residents, legislative attempts to better protect residential structures from fast-spreading fires have stalled.
A panel of firefighters, fire safety experts, activists and builders at a public forum in Teaneck weighed in Wednesday night on how best to address the issue.
“What we’re saying, from the fire service perspective, is we’re being presented with a problem that we can’t deal with,” said Glenn Corbett, a longtime Waldwick volunteer firefighter and professor of fire science at John Jay College. “These are buildings that were literally built to burn, from our perspective. We don’t have the manpower and we don’t have the ability to get ahead of these fires.”
Democratic state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, who organized Wednesday’s forum, was among the politicians, fire safety experts and activists who called for fire safety reforms after the AvalonBay at Edgewater fire in 2015. The fire, attributed to a maintenance worker who ignited insulation in the walls with a blowtorch, tore through the 240-unit building, spreading quickly across the attics, walls and floors, eventually reducing everything but the concrete elevator shafts to rubble.
Multifamily buildings made from wood construction similar to the Edgewater complex are popping up across North Jersey.
In 2017, a fire ripped through an apartment building under construction by AvalonBay in Maplewood. Similar fires have occurred in Raleigh, North Carolina, Denver, Colorado, and other cities. The structures are most vulnerable during the building phase before sprinklers and fire walls are installed.
Trains carrying flammable crude oil and other hazardous materials pass through many of these towns along the CSX rail line, Weinberg said, adding to the concern among fire officials.
“That puts an added burden on many of our communities in terms of first responders and how we act and react to these issues,” she said. “We’re talking about the kind of building we’re doing and what, if any, legislation needs to be changed or tightened up.”
The Edgewater fire served as overwhelming evidence for many firefighters and fire safety experts of the deficiencies in the state’s building code, which requires a sprinkler system designed to allow people enough time to leave but not to save the building or residents’ possessions.
According to the code, builders can construct four- or five-story apartment complexes almost entirely out of engineered wood, which fire experts say burns faster than traditional lumber.
A push to reform the state’s building codes, including a bill that would have required an automatic fire-suppression system in all concealed combustible spaces in large wood frame buildings while limiting the size of buildings without a robust fire suppression system, stalled in 2017.
Two pieces of legislation currently before the state call for sprinklers in attics and the void spaces in ceilings and floors, limiting the height and size of wood frame buildings, and requiring fire walls that extend to the ground and through the roof and an around-the-clock “fire watch” of buildings under construction.
The tougher of the bills, S-854, would prohibit large wood construction buildings in densely populated communities and limit these buildings to three stories with 7,000 square feet per story in other areas.
The bills were introduced more than a year ago and brought back at the beginning of the 2018-19 legislative session.
Fire safety experts and lawmakers have attributed the delay to concerns over the impact on the state’s building industry, the lack of fatalities in the Edgewater fire and the effect of competing proposals targeting similar reforms.
The Edgewater building was rebuilt with measures beyond what is required by New Jersey’s building code, including strengthened fire walls between building segments and an enhanced sprinkler system in attics and other unoccupied spaces.
AvalonBay is now building according to those standards in its other large developments, including a 248-unit complex under construction in Teaneck.
The steps taken by AvalonBay to build beyond the code are commendable, said Thomas Troy of the New Jersey Builders Association. But requiring masonry fire walls in all situations would be too costly, especially given the state’s affordable-housing requirements, he said.
“We’re the guys that build those projects and deliver that type of housing, and we have to do it in a way that’s as economically achievable as possible,” Troy said.
Alexi Assmus, a citizen activist from Princeton who manages a Facebook group called Massive Fires Damage Lives, said changes to the fire code are needed to prevent another disaster.
“We all need to work on common-sense solutions to the problem of huge fires in large-scale wood housing,” she said. “Our children are living in it — it’s being built as student housing. Our seniors are living in it. It’s being built as luxury apartments. We all need to be proactive to make it fire-safe.”
Far-reaching sprinkler systems and effective fire walls or spaces between buildings are good first steps in preventing these types of large-scale fires, fire officials said Wednesday.
“Most Bergen County departments are volunteer, and they’re not getting the volunteers they got years ago. Our manpower is very limited,” said Thomas Jacobson of the Edgewater Fire Department, who witnessed firsthand the speed with which the fire spread four years ago. “If you’re going to build a building this big, make it non-combustible. Put the brakes in the alleyways and separate the buildings.”