NYC, Philly tragedies highlight need to strengthen CRR efforts, trauma support

In the wake of two fires that left dozens dead, including many children, we must reinforce our life safety messages and focus on member support


Two of the worst residential fatality fires in recent memory occurred in the past week, devastating communities in New York City and Philadelphia.

A Jan. 5 fire in Philadelphia killed 12 individuals – three sisters and their nine children. The fire was reportedly started by a child playing with a lighter.

And just four days later, New York City faced a tragedy with an even larger victim tally – 19 dead, including nine children, with 60 more injured and 13 still in critical condition.

A curtain hangs outside a window at an apartment building in the Bronx on Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in New York, where a fatal fire occurred, in what the city's fire commissioner called one of the worst blazes in recent memory.
A curtain hangs outside a window at an apartment building in the Bronx on Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in New York, where a fatal fire occurred, in what the city's fire commissioner called one of the worst blazes in recent memory. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

What happened: NYC

According to Commissioner Nigro, Sunday’s fire began in a duplex apartment spanning the second and third floors of a 19-story building. Firefighters found the apartment door open, which allowed the smoke and fire to spread both vertically and horizontally throughout the high rise.

Nigro compared the severity of the fire to the tragic Happy Land social club fire where 87 people died in 1990. He shared that firefighters "found victims on every floor and were taking them out in cardiac and respiratory arrest … That is unprecedented in our city.”

More than 200 firefighters worked the five-alarm scene, with horrific and heroic images emerging of the firefight and rescue attempts. At last report, at least 32 engines, 24 ladder trucks, numerous support apparatus and a mass-casualty EMS assignment has responded. Additional equipment was being called in for relief and overhaul.

Initial reports indicate the fire is not suspicious in nature but still under investigation.

Firefighters work at the scene of a fatal fire at an apartment building in the Bronx on Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in New York. The majority of victims were suffering from severe smoke inhalation, FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.
Firefighters work at the scene of a fatal fire at an apartment building in the Bronx on Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in New York. The majority of victims were suffering from severe smoke inhalation, FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

What happened: Philadelphia

In the Philadelphia fire, a 5-year-old playing with a lighter ignited a Christmas tree, which quickly spread through the three-story duplex. Twelve residents perished in the city-owned building where approximately two dozen family members lived in the two units.

That fire was the worst fatality fire in Philadelphia in more than a century. Although the city reports the building was inspected this past May, numerous reports indicated that no smoke alarms were working at the time of the fire.

The fact that the City of Philadelphia owns the building provides pause for many departments that will find similar ownership and living conditions in their locales. Fire departments and fire inspectors must ensure their members have done everything possible to enforce their fire codes and laws, conduct inspections and share prevention messaging.

Philadelphia firefighters clear debris from the scene of a deadly row house fire, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia.
Philadelphia firefighters clear debris from the scene of a deadly row house fire, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Incident impacts

We aren’t even one month into the three-month winter season. While winter is the time we typically see historic residential fires, the scope and scale of these two fires suggest something different. While allowing time to properly grieve and help our responders cope, as an industry, we MUST seize on this time after the tragedies to reenergize our community risk reduction efforts.

While both cold and COVID likely have something to do with the number of people sequestered inside these buildings, it is clear to me that we are missing the opportunity to accelerate our prevention messaging. It’s time to put the masks on, take the prevention gloves off, and get out into our communities – right in their psyche with our messages and our inspections. There are innumerable free and ready opportunities to preach our message and reinforce those tried-and-true fire prevention slogans that have had phenomenal success over the years.

CRR and life safety resources

Beyond the obvious public fire prevention messaging, we also need to ensure after-action summaries are shared as widely as possible within the fire service, and that the health and welfare of our responders is paramount. Fatal fires are never easy – made even more traumatic when multiple children perish. Take advantage of all opportunities to talk about the events and seek both counsel and counseling when and where necessary. None of this is “easy” for anyone.

[Read next: Managing trauma: How every member can offer support]

What’s next

Unfortunately, we need to be prepared for many more large-occupancy events while the cold, snow and COVID continue to ravage the country. Now is the time to expedite our prevention messaging at all age levels and at all opportunities. The simple messages that smoke alarms save lives, “Close Before You Doze” and fire-escape planning are a great start.

Further, working smoke alarms reduce the risk of dying in a fire by 55%. We need to reenergize residential smoke alarm programs that may have fallen victim to COVID or other reasons. Considering the situation in Philadelphia, juvenile fire-setter programs should also be in your reenergized efforts as well.

Your communities NEED to hear from YOU. Now is the time to connect with them on social media and other outlets to raise awareness. Many firefighters avoid the fire prevention portion of our job. While I don’t agree with it, I get it; it’s not the “sexy” part of what we do – but it does save lives!

There are at least 31 dead civilians from these two fires who will never have the chance to hear your message. Let’s start now – the clock is ticking and it’s on our watch!

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