Who is to blame for fires?

Adam Thiel, Philadelphia’s 20th fire commissioner, has done doctoral work in public policy, in addition to earning degrees in fire science and history.

On Tuesday, he showed his public policy chops with a declaration that the “root cause” of fire disasters is a dearth of safe, affordable, public housing.

Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

He was referring to both the Fairmount fire that took 12 lives and the Bronx fire that claimed 17.

Each fire occurred in subsidized public housing. 

They were “affordable,” they were public, but were they safe? If not, whose fault is it?

The Bronx fire was traced to a space heater. I don’t know whether the use of such devices is permitted. I do know they are dangerous.

In Philadelphia, one TV reporter said the cause was “a cigarette lighter that ignited a Christmas tree.”

The reality, according to Thiel: a 5-year-old playing with a cigarette lighter ignited the tree. See the difference?

I am not assigning blame, just reporting reality.

“It is much too simple and it is wrong,” Thiel was quoted as saying, “to blame a 5-year-old, or to blame a family that really doesn’t have any other options, for the fire problem in the United States is bigger than that.”

A couple of weeks earlier, speaking as a Fire Commissioner rather than as a woke social scientist, Thiel said the 5-year-old started the fire and occupants were not alerted because the smoke detectors — furnished by the city and inspected just a few months earlier — either had been disabled or the batteries had been removed.

Let’s repeat that: the life-saving smoke detectors had been disabled by the occupants.

Why would someone do something so stupid unfortunate?

One landlord tells me his tenants routinely steal the batteries to use in toys or appliances. 

In other cases — including my own apartment — tsmoke detectors may go off during routine cooking.

So the occupant disables the device. (No, I never do that.)

This is not a problem exclusive to public housing, nor poor people. 

Fires are equal opportunity destroyers — from inner city tenements to Main Line mansions to homes built on hillsides in the far west.

Some fires can be avoided, some can be easily extinguished, some can be escaped.

Fire has nothing to do with income, race nor social standing.

Please avoid distractions, Mr. Commissioner.

24 thoughts on “Who is to blame for fires?”

  1. Commissioner Theil threw gasoline on a fire with his explanation of the root cause of those tragedies.

  2. All fire and smoke detectors should be HARD WIRED, not depend on batteries to do their job. Would we accept putting in a sprinkler system that wasn’t connected to the water supply?

    1. Vince, the following is from ehow dot com:

      Beeping and Chirping
      A smoke detector typically reacts to a potential fire in two ways. The device emits a beeping sound and flashes a red light on the front. Hard-wired designs are more prone to produce false alarms than detectors that run solely on a battery. A rapid increase in temperature, such as running a heater underneath it, might trigger the alarm on a hard-wired smoke detector. Dirt and debris clogging the device can also cause a false alarm. First Alert recommends dusting the alarm and the surrounding area or using a vacuum cleaner attachment around the alarm. According to First Alert, you can spray insect repellent around the outside of the smoke detector to prevent bugs from accumulating in the device and clogging it, although the repellent should not be sprayed directly on the smoke detector.

      Power Surges
      Hard-wired smoke detectors can experience problems caused by power surges and electrical failure. When you overload your home system and blow a fuse or pop the circuit breaker, you change the way electricity flows through the wiring. The problem can make the smoke detector blink or flash. A power surge caused by lightning hitting a nearby electrical tower or problems with your electric provider might result in similar problems.

      Other Issues
      A hard-wired smoke detector is not a permanent addition to your home. The device loses its effectiveness within 10 years. You should stay abreast of the U.S. Consumer Product Supply Commission regarding any problems that arise with your specific model. Check with the manufacturer to discover any problems that have been documented, as most keep a list of recalls and safety issues on the official websites. If the manufacturer issues a recall, you should get a free smoke detector from the company.

  3. Vince is right. City council should pass a bill for PHA housing units to hard wire all their rental properties. There is money to pay for this project from the build back better law. City council can actually pass a law that prevents fire deaths. The fire commissioner was right at time of his 1st comment, the fire was started by a five year old who lit the family’s Christmas Tree. Secondary comments have nothing to do with the factor that caused the fire. The 5 year old who started the fire was not thinking about causes of poverty. The fire commissioner should curb his comments to only the cause and origin of the fire.

    Did Mrs. O’Leary cow really start the fire that almost leveled Chicago ? Same difference.
    Philly has a lot – a lot of old housing stock. Houses built without indoor plumbing and lighting are still around. They just been remodeled a half a dozen times or so. My Parent’s house was one of these row houses. wood burning stoves that gave heat as you cooked on them. Coal came much later. And on and on. Chimney fires were common in the ’50s and early ’60s. Creosote buildup was the cause. I could go on, but if yoy’re thinking, then you can figure out the rest.
    The fire in Fairmont was of no surprise to us in construction. Actually, we wonder how most of these houses are still standing. Did I mention ‘wire and tube’ electric ?
    As a retired construction official with a civil engineering degree, yada, yada, yada, I will say that since the building codes have been widely used, house fires are fewer than ever before. Hard wired smoke/ carbon monoxide alarms are relatively new. Sprinkler systems are a beautiful thing. The building codes improve when consensus agrees. That’s part of the reason why change takes so long. It would be – and is, cost prohibitive to think about ahrd wiring housing. True, multiple family housing has it some times. I don’t know what the latest code sites, but seldom are the codes retroactive.
    There are a lot of factors involved in discussing ‘fire’ and ‘codes’. Think of the problem this way. Codes are laws. Do we enforce all laws equally ? Of course not. For that matter. Do we inspect the actual housing and families that are the occupants ?
    Think back a few years when the demo job ob Market street knocked down the building next door and killed / maimed people. Laws were in place. Were they followed ? You think not. I know not.
    Here’s hoping we actually do something constructive for a change.

    1. correction.
      wire & tube should be ‘wire & knob’ That’s what those little porcelain thingies were nailed to the studs. They carried BARE wire.

          1. Knob and tube IS NOT a type of wiring it is an old system used before wirenuts. Tube is a copper tube that was crimped around the spliced wires and knob was a type of putty that was then formed around the splice before being taped. It was most commonly used during the era of that type of wiring however.

          2. James, the following is from;
            Knob-and-Tube Wiring
            by Nick Gromicko, CMI® and Kenton Shepard

            “K&T wiring consists of insulated copper conductors passing through lumber framing drill-holes via protective porcelain insulating tubes. They are supported along their length by nailed-down porcelain knobs. Where wires enter a wiring device, such as a lamp or switch, or were pulled into a wall, they are protected by flexible cloth or rubber insulation called “loom.””


  5. My house in Collegeville (19 years) was hard wired, as is my present apartment in K of P (2.5 years). Never had a problem. Yes, there is ALWAYS going to be a problem with any electronic device. But the news following a fatal fire seems to ALWAYS have this line at the end of the story: “Firemen say the house/apartment had multiple smoke/fire alarms, but the batteries had been removed.” Or sad words to that effect.

    1. woopsie. computer problems – or is it me again…………
      but on a serious note, Vince. I have inspected in PA, NJ and Delaware. Rental properties will always have issues. It doesn’t matter the income area. Many people destroy for what is not theirs, for what ever reasons that car convenient at the time. Hard wired smoke detectors can be destroyed just as easily as battery powered. “there ain’t much I haven’t seen”, says he.
      The older generation smokes would fail after a short time, just like everything else that is a first or second generation product. Do you know that GFCI electrical outlets will probably fail after a number of uses ?

      1. Tony, you said “𝙏𝙝𝙚 𝙤𝙡𝙙𝙚𝙧 𝙜𝙚𝙣𝙚𝙧𝙖𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙣 𝙨𝙢𝙤𝙠𝙚𝙨 𝙬𝙤𝙪𝙡𝙙 𝙛𝙖𝙞𝙡 𝙖𝙛𝙩𝙚𝙧 𝙖 𝙨𝙝𝙤𝙧𝙩 𝙩𝙞𝙢𝙚, 𝙟𝙪𝙨𝙩 𝙡𝙞𝙠𝙚 𝙚𝙫𝙚𝙧𝙮𝙩𝙝𝙞𝙣𝙜 𝙚𝙡𝙨𝙚 𝙩𝙝𝙖𝙩 𝙞𝙨 𝙖 𝙛𝙞𝙧𝙨𝙩 𝙤𝙧 𝙨𝙚𝙘𝙤𝙣𝙙 𝙜𝙚𝙣𝙚𝙧𝙖𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙣 𝙥𝙧𝙤𝙙𝙪𝙘𝙩. 𝘿𝙤 𝙮𝙤𝙪 𝙠𝙣𝙤𝙬 𝙩𝙝𝙖𝙩 𝙂𝙁𝘾𝙄 𝙚𝙡𝙚𝙘𝙩𝙧𝙞𝙘𝙖𝙡 𝙤𝙪𝙩𝙡𝙚𝙩𝙨 𝙬𝙞𝙡𝙡 𝙥𝙧𝙤𝙗𝙖𝙗𝙡𝙮 𝙛𝙖𝙞𝙡 𝙖𝙛𝙩𝙚𝙧 𝙖 𝙣𝙪𝙢𝙗𝙚𝙧 𝙤𝙛 𝙪𝙨𝙚𝙨 ?”

        While I am sure I do not have to tell you, this is why manufacturers recommend these items, along with many others, be tested at regular intervals. Sadly this seldom happens, as I am sure you have seen many times as an inspector.

  6. Happy you spoke to what FC Theil said, both before and now “Woke.” “Equity” is the go to word today. Ticked me off a little when he said it, but gotta give him the benefit. I’ve met him and like him. And all my buddies feel that way. Not to mention the active. It would have been nice to work under him.

    Smoke detectors require common sense. Mine are 10 year lithium. I prefer battery over the wired for reasons stated here. I check often. Just the other day, while cooking, one went off, yet no visible smoke. They are the First…First Responders. I have one HW carbon monoxide monitor in my LR which is above a garage… which I use.
    Stay safe and occasionally talk about a plan…in case.

  7. The progressive caucus is mowing using the fires in public housing as a reason to pass build back better. I am not sure how BBB would have prevented the Philly fire or Bronx fire.

    I also do not see how the progressive Democrats can provide safe and affordable housing. They promise the world to the marginalized communities and constantly fail to deliver.

    1. Having grown up in a (wonderful) Brooklyn housing project, all it takes for safe and affordable housing is money, and then management that enforces the rules.
      Public housing families pay rent as a percentage of their income.
      MY project required at least one wage earner in each household.
      Having a jib helped insure the tenants were responsible.
      I am not saying all jobless are irresponsible. Some are victims of circumstance, but I would direct most support to the working poor.

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