FDNY Now Inspects Hundreds of Buildings on Time after Deadly Fire

December 14, 2007

Until a deadly blaze in a condemned ground zero skyscraper this summer spurred scrutiny of inspection records, the New York fire department didn’t know that some construction and demolition sites existed. Many were believed never to have been inspected.

Now, fire inspectors are regularly examining most buildings under construction or demolition citywide, the commissioner said Wednesday.

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta and Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the inspection overhaul after an investigation into the Aug. 18 fire at the former Deutsche Bank building. The probe showed that the tower _ shuttered since the terrorist attack on the nearby World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 _ had not been inspected for more than a year.

Hazardous conditions inside the building, which was being dismantled, were said to have made firefighting exceedingly difficult. Two firefighters died amid a maze of debris and confusion.

As part of the fire investigation, officials looked at inspection records and found lapses at some of the hundreds of other buildings under construction or demolition. By law, they must be inspected every 15 days if they are at least 75 feet tall.

Scoppetta said at a City Council hearing that those sites _ nearly 500 citywide _ are now locked into a regular inspection cycle.

One factor responsible for the improvement is a computer program that uses automatic pop-up reminders, triggered when a building’s inspection is almost due, Scoppetta said.

The department also depends on the city Buildings Department to share its records when new construction and demolition permits are issued, he said.

“Now we have real-time information … and it shows a remarkable success rate,” Scoppetta said.

Under the old system, the fire department was simply expected to notice new construction or demolitions, and then to begin inspections of those sites.

Scoppetta insisted that this disjointed procedure made it impossible to know the rate of compliance with the 15-day rule. After one month of the new procedures, 97 percent of buildings are being checked on schedule, he said.

Fire unions have said the department should hire additional personnel to do inspections, rather than expecting firefighters to take on more work. There is also concern that if firefighters are consumed with inspections, their responses to fires will be slower.

Scoppetta said data from November show that responses to emergencies were not delayed under the new inspection rules, but were in fact slightly faster.

He cautioned, however, that one month was not enough time to know the overall effect.

“Response times are faster, but we’ll monitor it _ you need more data before you can see what we’re doing,” Scoppetta said.

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