In response to the Jan. 5 rowhouse fire in Philadelphia’s Fairmount section that killed twelve people, Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel spoke at a Jan. 25 press conference. Instead of merely citing the causes and contributing factors of the deadly blaze, he said policymakers should focus on one of the “root causes” of the deadly fire.

Thiel cited fire-prevention systems like smoke alarms and retrofitted sprinkler systems as important steps to reducing deaths and injuries. Traditionally, this is where a Fire Commissioner would introduce their Fire Marshal to discuss the investigation and evidence. Instead, Thiel shifted to social talking points commonly heralded by Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, moving the conversation from the death investigation by saying “equity is a really important component of this.”

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On Jan. 11, investigators from the Philadelphia Fire Marshal and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms reported that the fire was caused by a child who survived the fire, who told investigators at the hospital that he was playing with a cigarette lighter and accidentally set a dry Christmas tree ablaze. However, interviews by KYW news radio and the Philadelphia Inquirer gleaned information which cites potential contributing factors by the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), which owns the building, as well as other failures in government that possibly created an environment where this fire was able to result in as many casualties as it did.

According to the PHA, the 1105-square foot rowhome, split into two units, was physically inspected less than seven months before the fire, and had passed. The PHA inspection claimed the four battery-operated smoke detectors had all been working, and had not addressed any signs that the dwelling was over the intended occupancy. To date, PHA’s Inspector General has not announced an investigation on their part.

Instead of addressing these issues, Thiel attempted to shift accountability to the residents of the property and general availability of public housing by saying, “It is much too simple and it’s wrong to blame a five-year-old, or blame a family that really doesn’t have any other options, for the fire problem in the United States,” he said. “It’s much bigger than that.” 

Thiel continued: “A robust response force will be needed until the entire system has been uplifted because folks have what they need to get safe and affordable housing.”

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Regardless of this assertion that Philadelphia’s lack of “affordable” housing is the true cause of this deadly fire, the Fire Department’s responsibility to point out potential fire code violations relating to the duty of care by both the property owner and resident is what was missing from the press conference.

If PHA truly inspected the home in May, why were all four smoke detectors malfunctioning just seven months later? As any homeowner knows, smoke detectors gradually run out of power and give an audible chirp for weeks before dying completely. However, fire investigators determined that none of the smoke detectors inside the upper unit appear to have been working at the time of the fire — all were reportedly disabled by the tenants. 

“Three were in a drawer in the kitchen, inoperable. One was in a bedroom drawer, inoperable. One was on the ceiling of a bedroom, but the battery door was open and there was no battery inside. Another one was on the floor of another bedroom, with no battery,” Thiel said.

Which brings up a failure to enforce laws which may have prevented this tragedy.

In a recorded interview with KYW news radio, a family member of the fire victims, Rabyna Turner, said the condition of the house was not what it should have been. “My cousin wrote numerous times about situations,” Turner said. “They just need to make sure that they get these letters from people who live in these houses.”

Instead of raising important questions, Thiel shifted the accountability to a political talking point that lets those who may have prevented these deaths off the hook.

Further reports have since emerged in the Philadelphia Inquirer that the downstairs neighbors had complained about an infestation and said they were “overwhelmed with furniture and trash in the shared yard and basement from” the upstairs apartment. In Landlord-Tenant Court, PHA had sought to evict McDonald and her family from the unit seven times, most often seeking to extract overdue payments on her $433 monthly rent.

This raises questions about PHA’s duty to keep the other unit’s tenants safe, as well as neighbors in surrounding, connected rowhomes. Clearly, so many people living in one three-story house, especially following complaints about furniture and trash littering the shared yard, contributed to an inability to escape the fire.

“When we moved the family in 2011, we moved them because they were under-housed. We provided them a larger unit,” said PHA chief executive Kelvin Jeremiah. The primary leaseholder was Vanessa McDonald, mother of the three sisters, who was not at the address when the fire occurred. PHA’s occupancy standards suggest a four-bedroom unit should accommodate no more than eight people, but the agency said it is legally prohibited from forcing people to move when their family sizes exceed those standards.

PHA has also acknowledged that the unit lacked some working fire safety equipment, including a fire extinguisher, fire escape, and roof exit, though Jeremiah said PHA had determined existing windows and doors provided “appropriate” means of egress.

While PHA’s history of accountability issues makes for an easy target, it is also important to note the policy failures that directly contributed to this issue. If PHA previously sought eviction proceedings against the tenants, did any federal or municipal eviction moratoriums contribute to their failure to remove tenants? Furthermore, the Pennsylvania Legislature had inexplicably failed to bring House Bill 1236 to the floor for a vote for the last three years. House Bill 1236, sponsored by Rep. Todd Polinchock (R-Bucks) and Rep. Frank Farry (R-Bucks), who also serves as a firefighter, would have required tamper-proof, hard-wired smoke alarms in rental properties.

Instead of raising these important questions, Thiel shifted the accountability to a political talking point that lets those who may have prevented these deaths off the hook. Now, all eyes shift to the Inspector General’s office and to state-elected officials to provide effective oversight where it is still sorely needed.

A. Benjamin Mannes, MA, CPP, CESP, is a Subject Matter Expert in Security & Criminal Justice Reform based on his own experiences on both sides of the criminal justice system. He has served as a federal and municipal law enforcement officer and was the former Director, Office of Investigations with the American Board of Internal Medicine. @PublicSafetySME

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