According to the FDNY, 2014 will be recorded as the busiest in the firefighting agency’s now 150-year history.
Because there can be zero margin of error when life is on the line, it’s no wonder the New York City Building Code has historically maintained rigorous minimum safety standards for contractors, builders and landlords. This has been especially so for those in charge of constructing and maintaining the gas, steam, water and waste supply lines that enable New York’s high occupancy buildings to remain safe.
But what happens when New York begins to eliminate some of the minimum safety code provisions when it comes to fire-sprinklers or the natural gas lines in the buildings where we live or work? How about when we get a bit lax about the quality and integrity of the steam pipes feeding heat into our buildings, the natural gas pipes buried inside walls, or the medical gas lines in hospitals?
We’ve seen what can happen. In March 2014, tragedy struck in Harlem when a natural gas main leak and explosion took seven innocent souls and injured 60 more. Even a century after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire forced the city to confront all the safety hazards attached to that tragedy, it appears that one New York City agency is intent on lowering safety standards.
The city’s building code requires two separate and distinct safety elements when it comes to installing and maintaining fire sprinkler, natural gas and water systems: First, all the work can only be performed by firms licensed by DOB, and second, all the work must be thoroughly inspected and tested before it is operational. That’s why a little noticed memo by the DOB in January 2013 is so perplexing and contrary to its official “BUILD SAFE” motto.
In January 2013, DOB eliminated one of the two safety requirements for installing fire suppression, gas piping and other plumbing systems. No longer will fire suppression and plumbing work have to be performed by licensed firms. DOB decided that if fire suppression piping, gas pipe welding, sanitary systems, etc. were built into a 20-by-40-foot section of a building and later transported to a site, it was neither “fire suppression” nor “gas piping” work until it arrived at the site. Same piping, same welding, etc., but the work could be performed by anyone.
What’s worse is that DOB’s policy, made without any public notice, applies not only to one- to three-family homes and other residential buildings but also to high-rise commercial buildings and hospitals treating our city’s sick, elderly and infirm.
Would you want your children and family to occupy a building whose critical life safety systems were put in place by an untrained, unlicensed worker? Or what if the hospital or nursing home your loved one was a patient in had a fire?
The NYC Building Code requires that plumbing work, including connections to domestic water supply, gas piping, medical lines, and back-flow devices in medical facilities, be performed by a licensed firm. Similarly the Building Code also requires that fire suppression systems that automatically detect and then control, suppress, or extinguish fires, helping prevent fatal accidents, only be installed by licensed fire suppression contractors. The obvious reason is safety.
Licensed master plumbers and mechanical contracting firms are trained and qualified to ensure the city’s gas and steam piping are properly welded, so that the public is protected from leaks that lead to explosions. Does it make any sense to have two regulatory systems—one that requires certain buildings to be constructed using licensed firms and other buildings that can be constructed using unlicensed people?
Allowing unlicensed assembly line workers to control the life safety functions in our city’s buildings could again result in major fatalities. As New Yorkers, we must take exception when the safety provisions of the Building Code enacted by the New York City Council are ignored or circumvented by the bureaucratic fiat of an agency without even a public hearing.
Stewart O’Brien is Executive Director of the Plumbing Foundation of New York and former First Deputy Commissioner and Acting Commissioner of the New York City Department of Buildings. Tony Saporito is executive vice president of the Mechanical Contractors of New York, Inc.