N.Y. City Restarts Site Inspections, Uncovers Safety Problems

October 10, 2007

The New York City Fire Department has uncovered more than 120 fire hazards and shut down construction sites at twice the normal rate since it restarted its inspections program less than two months ago.

After a deadly blaze exposed dangerous fire hazards at a contaminated ground zero skyscraper that was being dismantled, officials acknowledged the New York City Fire Department had failed to inspect it for more than a year.

Since the Aug. 18 fire, the department’s inspectors have fanned out across the city to scrutinize hundreds of construction sites, looking to prevent similar disasters.

The inspections have uncovered more than 120 fire hazards — including broken water pipes and elevators — at various sites since the fire at the former Deutsche Bank building, according to city records. The inspections have caused the city to shut down construction sites since the fire at twice the rate of the months before, city records show.

Close to 500 sites are being inspected for the first time, despite a city law requiring inspections every 15 days. The lapse in visits to the former Deutsche Bank tower failed to uncover a breach in a standpipe supposed to supply water to fire hoses, complicating firefighting efforts in the August blaze, which killed two firefighters.

“What’s important is they’re being inspected, and they’re going to continue to be inspected,” Fire Department spokesman Jim Long said.

The visits will soon extend to the city’s most high-profile construction site, the World Trade Center. It has not been regularly inspected by the department because it is not on city-owned property.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bistate agency that owns the 16-acre site, will halt construction if ordered to by the Fire Department, even though the law doesn’t require it, said spokesman Steve Coleman. Fire Department officials are scheduled to come to the fenced-off site in the next two weeks to familiarize themselves with the construction there before beginning regular visits, he said.

The new inspections illustrate the challenge of inspecting every construction site in a city that is in the middle of a historic, $25 billion building boom. Glenn Corbett, a fire safety expert and a professor at John Jay College, said the city law requiring inspections every 15 days could overload certain firehouses in construction-heavy areas.

“You could literally spend your entire tour going on an inspection,” Corbett said. “If you have a large number of buildings to inspect and those buildings are very hard to inspect, that can be unmanageable.”

The citywide inspections started in late August, after Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta ordered the department to find every site where construction or demolition is going on and check for fire safety violations and other issues that could make it hard to quell a fire.

Besides the broken standpipe at the former Deutsche Bank tower, fire officials have said that sealed-off stairwells and a negative air-pressure system that pushed the fire downward created hazards the department didn’t know about.

The department looked at 485 sites, which included just over 350 actual buildings, and reported 122 fire hazards that required follow-up inspections by the city Department of Buildings, fire and buildings officials said. More than 200 other calls routed to the Fire Department from the city’s 311 complaint line prompted more inspections.

In the six weeks since the blaze, the Buildings Department has issued 27 stop-work orders stemming from fire-safety issues that shut down construction sites. Before the Aug. 18 fire, 67 such orders had been issued in 2007.

A high-rise being demolished near Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan was cited on Sept. 14 for removing an interior stairwell that could be used by firefighters, and for defects in the building standpipe. The order has since been lifted.

A building being renovated into condominiums just blocks from ground zero was shut down after “accumulation of combustible debris resulted in fire on the first floor, which spread to the third floor,” another report read.

“No standpipe, no elevator in readiness and no approved plans for site,” read an order for a residential high-rise in upper Manhattan. The contractors working at the cited buildings didn’t return telephone calls seeking comment.

Long said most findings that would trigger referrals to the Buildings Department would involve faulty sprinkler systems, standpipes, or inaccessible stairwells or elevators.

None of the sites inspected, Long said, have the same features as the former Deutsche Bank tower — a building that was being cleaned, floor by floor, of toxic debris at the same time it was being dismantled.

Firefighters have said the building was enormously difficult to inspect, requiring inspectors to don protective environmental suits and spend several hours going floor-by-floor through what was once a 40-story tower. It was down to 26 floors by the time of the fire.

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