Councilman O’Brien proposes Vacant Property Task Force

Large va­cant com­mer­cial and in­dus­tri­al prop­er­ties are fire traps, ac­cord­ing to City Coun­cil­man Den­nis O’Bri­en.

These idle rel­ics of Phil­adelphia’s man­u­fac­tur­ing age pose a grave threat to neigh­bor­ing res­id­ents, curi­ous kids, squat­ters, drug ad­dicts and even the thieves who mine met­al wir­ing and pipes from the un­se­cured struc­tures. The build­ings also threaten the lives of fire­fight­ers, as demon­strated on April 9, 2012, when Fire Lt. Robert Neary and Fire­fight­er Daniel Sweeney per­ished in a Kens­ing­ton ware­house blaze.

On Jan. 30, O’Bri­en, an at-large Re­pub­lic­an, in­tro­duced le­gis­la­tion that he hopes will pre­vent sim­il­ar tra­gedies in the fu­ture.

“Not only do these blazes cause more fire­fight­er in­jur­ies than in any oth­er prop­erty clas­si­fic­a­tion, they also dam­age nearby homes and busi­nesses and des­troy the fab­ric of the com­munity,” O’Bri­en said while in­tro­du­cing his bill that would amend the city’s fire code.

“Wheth­er the build­ings are aban­doned or va­cant, more than 70 per­cent of the fires oc­cur­ring in them are in­cen­di­ary or sus­pi­cious. They’re tar­gets for kids, van­dals, drug users and the home­less.”

O’Bri­en is pro­pos­ing to cre­ate a new Va­cant Prop­erty Task Force that would identi­fy and in­spect sus­pec­ted va­cant and un­se­cured build­ings, while main­tain­ing a data­base that would serve as a real-time, search­able re­source for emer­gency re­spon­ders. The bill even calls for plac­ards to be af­fixed to the ex­ter­i­ors of haz­ard­ous prop­er­ties to alert fire­fight­ers to the im­me­di­ate dangers.

Neary and Sweeney had no such warn­ings when they and two col­leagues from Lad­der 10 re­spon­ded to a five-alarm fire at the va­cant Buck Ho­siery ware­house at Bo­ston and Jasper streets. The fire­fight­ers went in­to a neigh­bor­ing busi­ness hop­ing to stop the blaze from spread­ing. In­stead, a brick wall from the six-story ware­house col­lapsed onto them, killing two while in­jur­ing fire­fight­ers Patrick Nally and Fran­cis Cheney.

Neary’s wid­ow, Di­ane, and Sweeney’s moth­er, Mari­an, each at­ten­ded O’Bri­en’s City Hall news con­fer­ence be­fore the Jan. 30 Coun­cil ses­sion, as did city fire­fight­ers uni­on pres­id­ent Joe Schulle. Neary said she some­times vis­its the site of the fatal fire, which is now a large empty lot.

“I will look at the va­cant spot where my hus­band died, and Danny died, and know the va­cant­ness that can hap­pen in someone else’s life,” Di­ane Neary said.

O’Bri­en said that a re­cently re­leased in­de­pend­ent in­vest­ig­a­tion of the fatal fire in­dic­ated eight con­trib­ut­ing factors, the first two of which were “multi-alarm fire in a va­cant/aban­doned struc­ture” and “dilap­id­ated build­ing.”

“I in­tro­duce an or­din­ance that will take steps to re­duce fire­fight­er, oth­er first re­spon­der and com­munity risks presen­ted by items one and two,” the coun­cil­man said.

In re­sponse to the bill, May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials re­portedly said that the city already is work­ing on the safe­guards that O’Bri­en seeks. A spokes­wo­man from the the De­part­ment of Li­censes and In­spec­tion told The Phil­adelphia In­quirer that in­spect­ors are in the midst of cata­loging and cit­ing the city’s va­cant prop­er­ties. They have vis­ited 13,000 thus far, the news­pa­per said.

Fire Com­mis­sion­er Lloyd Ay­ers re­portedly said that his de­part­ment has im­ple­men­ted new train­ing based on the Buck Ho­siery fire.

The Na­tion­al In­sti­tute for Oc­cu­pa­tion­al Safety and Health con­duc­ted the in­de­pend­ent in­vest­ig­a­tion, while a Phila. grand jury on Feb. 3 re­leased a scath­ing re­port blam­ing the fatal fire on the prop­erty own­ers, as well as in­ef­fect­ive city over­sight, al­though no crim­in­al charges were filed. 

O’Bri­en noted that it’s been al­most two years since the Buck Ho­siery fire and he be­lieves that the city’s re­sponse has been too slow. His plan would take ef­fect im­me­di­ately upon pas­sage on a pi­lot pro­gram basis in the 7th Coun­cil­man­ic Dis­trict, where the Buck Ho­siery fire oc­curred. Maria Quinones-Sanc­hez rep­res­ents the dis­trict, which has a high con­cen­tra­tion of po­ten­tially haz­ard­ous va­cant prop­er­ties.

After six months, O’Bri­en’s plan would ex­pand to cov­er the en­tire city. After one year, all va­cant prop­er­ties — not just the large com­mer­cial and in­dus­tri­al sites — would be sub­ject to the new fire code pro­vi­sions.

The bill is await­ing as­sign­ment to a City Coun­cil com­mit­tee for con­sid­er­a­tion. ••

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