Fires

Could the London inferno happen here?

Sitting in the kitchen of the Watkins Street fire house in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn you can hear sirens from New York City cops responding to a call at one of America’s worst housing projects down the street. A couple of the guys are busting each other’s chops over whose wife is more of a pain in the neck. 

The loud speaker breaks the silence, “Ladder, Engine.” It’s a command, not an announcement. The crews sprints to put on their fire pants and boots. Pork chops and salted asparagus are left uncooked on the stove. The guys making jokes shut-up and start running to the truck. Forty seconds later they’re racing down the street with the “chauffeur” leaning on the horn. Each six man crew is thinking about the questions they’ll face when they get there. What’s the construction of the building? How is the fire traveling? Are people trapped? Has someone been shot or knifed? Does he need to be cut loose? Has someone had a heart attack or a drug overdose? Toes curl. Puckering occurs.  

But thankfully, in a huge number of calls, for the units in this neighborhood, it’s not a fire. That would be what firefighters call a “good job,” which means they get to really work and save lives. Often it’s a problem with an elevator in a public housing project. The people trapped inside are frightened, but they'll be OK after the firefighters go up the stairs and figure out how to pry open the doors. The elevators usually break because other residents have used the tiny steel car as a bathroom. 

As one famous Watkins Street FDNY officer once said, “if you peed on your TV set would it work?” But these guys don’t discriminate or judge. When they’re called, they come. 

The vast majority of the brick and cement projects built in 1950s and 1960s big-city America are what’s called “fireproof.” “It’s the contents that burn,” say the NY firefighters. Which means furniture, television sets, and sometimes, people.

It’s not uncommon for New York City fire units to take five, six, or seven emergency calls a day in public housing projects which resemble the one that erupted into flames in London Tuesday evening. But rarely, if ever, do we see the kind of total inferno that occurred in London with such horrific loss of life. 

Make no mistake, there is plenty of tragedy in American housing projects and plenty of complaints about conditions. But the vast majority of the brick and cement projects built in 1950s and 1960s big-city America are what’s called “fireproof.” As in the buildings, for the most part, don’t burn. 

“It’s the contents that burn,” say the NY firefighters. Which means furniture, television sets, and sometimes, people. 

During the winter, these housing projects fires are sometimes the result of what residents call “ghetto heat,” or the practice of leaving the oven open to provide warmth.   

In New York City alone, more than 400,000 people live in public housing projects, with a couple hundred thousand more in subsidized Section 8 apartments. In London, the neighborhoods around many of these sorts of projects have long since gentrified. That’s the case in some parts of New York such as The Lower East Side and Chelsea. Even in the very rough Brownsville neighborhood, scrappy NY real estate developers are starting to buy and renovate cheap houses on the fringes.

Again, most of the classic housing projects in the U.S. are designed to keep fire from spreading beyond a single unit. You close the door and other apartments are saved. Not so in London. 

The residents of The Grenfell Tower which burned in London apparently complained about conditions for years, even after a major renovation. There will be a lot of talk about the lack of adequate fire systems and who is to blame. The real, long term issue in the U.K., and here in the U.S., is poverty. How and when to allocate resources, and create opportunity, so tragedy does not occur and fewer people are left living in these towers. 

Steve Alperin is the CEO of DSA Holdings which recently spent time documenting the work of The New York City Fire Department.