Why Regulation Matters: A Tragic Fire

There’s no way to know for certain, but two regulatory failures might have contributed to the tragic death of two firefighters in Back Bay. The first remedy should be mandating sprinkler systems (boldface mine):

With two major fires in the same number of months in the Back Bay, the need to change the residential codes for multi-unit buildings is a fact that can no longer be ignored.

Wednesday’s fire took a tragic turn when two firefighters lost their lives battling the 9-alarm fire in the eight-unit townhouse and sent others to the hospital.

We urged city officials in February after the fire in the building on Massachusetts Avenue that sprinkler systems should be added to all multi-unit buildings in our neighborhood.

We now call upon city officials to immediately make sprinkler systems in all multi-unit buildings with four units or more in our neighborhood or similar neigborhoods in Boston mandatory when even one unit in the building requires a new certificate of occupancy.

In our neighborhood, owners of buildings with four or more units will pay almost half the amount in real estate taxes per year as those with buildings with fewer units even though the buildings may be identical in square footage and design. This difference easily amounts to tens of thousands of dollars.

This type of subsidy should not just fall to the bottom line, but should be reinvested to make these buildings safer not only for the occupants, but for their neighbors who live in some cases less than 20 feet apart.

The second failure is an enforcement issue:

The Back Bay blaze that killed two Boston firefighters last week was ignited by sparks from welders working on an iron handrail at the building next door to the fatal fire, authorities said Friday.

The workers, who were not identified, were apparently operating without a city permit, which usually requires a Fire Department official to inspect the work site for potential hazards and decide if a fire detail is required to be present during the welding.

As fierce winds blew that afternoon, sparks from the welding job in the rear of 296 Beacon St. flew toward the clapboards at the rear of 298 Beacon St., investigators determined. The fire began to smolder, then traveled up inside the walls, feeding on dry wood, the investigators said.

Both the Massachusetts state regulations and the Boston Fire Prevention Code are pretty strict, but the problem is one of enforcement. There’s a construction site right around the corner from me, and I’ve never seen any brightness curtains (if the Twitterz are any guide, I’m not the only one who has noticed this). Enforcement is a general problem: Boston has pretty good regulations, but, as far as I can tell, enforcement is very spotty (though not promoting indicted bank robbers might be a good place to start improving things). It’s something the city really needs to fix. To start with, the construction company that operated without a permit needs to be banned, and the company that hired the contractor should be heavily fined.

As we like to say, personal responsibility should not be the sole purview of single, poor minority mothers. Especially when two people are killed.

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