By Arthur H. Gunther III
I live in the neck of the woods where men and women of all economic, ethnic, religious and political circumstance, with varying age, height, weight and physical ability all do the same job: They protect their communities as volunteer firefighters. Yet, ironically, an increasing number are left without protection of their own, sent to the fires of hell by greedy landlords. The brethren are joined by the many paid New York City fire eaters who live in my -- our -- Rockland County, N.Y. They, too, are at the mercy of property owners who illegally sub-divide what are usually single-family houses. Some have died.
What these money-grabber landlords do in Gotham is to take old buildings and construct partitions, creating rooms to rent. They get no building permits, which would not be granted anyway. There may not even be smoke detectors let alone carbon monoxide units. A fire strikes, smoke, flames and 1,200-degree temperatures quickly eat at the structure (fire is like the devil himself -- it has a life of its own, licking its way around corners and striking as a snake). Firefighters become trapped in illegally walled-off structures with no way out, quickly disoriented. Walls fall down, air supply runs out, communication fails and these men and women die in a maze that should never have existed.
In Rockland, the volunteers are facing the same situation. Former summer-use bungalows that would not have met modern building codes had they been in place in the 1930s as well as suburban 1950s cape cods, split levels and bi-levels are subdivided as illegal multi-family housing, or worse, as rooming houses. A bad housing market drives up rents, which fuels greed. The homes may look the same outside but have the potential mazes of fire hell inside. In addition, some wood-frame and other substandard structures have been converted into schools, placing children in danger. Access for firetrucks is limited and buildings are so close that flames can leap over.
Rockland firefighters, who respond at all hours and under all conditions, are fed up with the unnecessary jeopardy that has been added to their lives. Some are preparing to quality for planning and zoning boards, to use the system to limit development and to insist on stricter standards, inspection and compliance. Other firefighters are tracking properties already cited, the ones that somehow get lost in the weak court system or which seem to curry political favoritism.
Perhaps working in the system will produce greater safety. I’d add, though I am not an expert (regrettably I never volunteered as a firefighter though relatives have) an idea mentioned when I was a newspaper editorialist. I suggested for the paper that every rental property in Rockland be required to have a renewable certificate of occupancy. Annual inspections would be conducted to note building changes and condition, wiring, heating, detectors, sanitation and sufficient parking. Inspections would be by capable, trained retired or jobless people whose part-time salaries would be funded by reasonable permit fees. Rental units would be shut down immediately if safety were compromised.
As for illegal construction that may not be obvious at first glance, the law should be toughened so that building and fire inspectors can gain property entry to check, say, smoke detectors. Any illegal walls, etc., would then be spotted.
In January 2005, a Bronx, N.Y., fire in an illegally converted apartment house took the life of a Rockland resident, John Bellew of the FDNY. Lt. Curtis Meyran was also killed, and firefighter Jeff Cool of Rockland was severely injured. Such needless death and injury should not occur again. Most landlords may be responsible, but the ones who are not are potential killers who must be thwarted.