Apartment building lacked smoke detectors

9 September 1983

Apartment building lacked smoke detectors

by Martha T. Moore
Staff Writer

The Nassau Street apartment building that caught fire early Friday morning, leaving nine residents homeless, did not have the smoke detectors required by law, according to Princeton borough arson inspector William Hunter.

Smoke detectors in buildings with more than three apartments have been required by slate law since 1981. Each apartment must have a battery-powered smoke detector, as must all common areas such as basements, hallways and stairs.

But the budding at 291-293 Nassau St., in which an electrical fire broke out in the basement at 3:20 a.m. Friday, did not have any smoke detectors, Patrolman Hunter said.

William Hurley, the building’s owner, said he was not aware of the law- requiring smoke detectors.

A couple who moved into the building last year said that they asked Mr. Hurley to install smoke detectors at the time. The landlord replied that “he had to put them in within a year,” said the husband, who asked not to be named. But the smoke detectors were never installed and the couple did not press the matter.

Tenants whose apartments burned Friday were “curious” as to why the
building had no smoke alarms, said the wife. Neither they nor other tenants had insurance to cover the fire, smoke and water damage, she said.

The state Bureau of Building Inspection is responsible for inspecting to see if apartment buildings have smoke detectors, said its chief, Ralph K. Pfleger. Inspections arc made every five years.

“The responsibility in the interim is that of the owner,” Mr. Pfleger said.
The building was lust inspected in 1979, before the smoke detector law was passed, said Mr. Pfleger. Re-inspection is not due until July 1984, he added, although an inspection may be made before then if the bureau
receives a written complaint of a violation.

Previous state code violations had been corrected after inspection, Mr. Hurley said.

“They just tell you what to do and you do it,” he said.

The building was also “pretty close” to being sold, renovated and converted into condominiums, Mr. Hurley added.

Although individual notification of the law was not sent to landlords, according to the Bureau of Housing Inspection, the requirement was “extremely well publicized,” a spokeswoman said.

While some towns have their own ordinances requiring smoke detectors, Princeton Borough does not. said borough attorney Edwin W. Schmierer, and inspection is therefore left to the state.

The fire began at 3:20 a.m., according to a stopped clock found at the scene, and the alarm to Princeton’s volunteer fire companies went out at 3:29 a.m. But a smoke detector could still have made a difference, fire fighters said.

“It’s got to be an advantage, in this case or in any ease.” said one fireman who declined to be named.

In fighting a fire, “it’s a question of seconds and minutes.” said Fire Commissioner Richard C Woodbridge, who with other firemen fought flames and smoke until nearly 8 a.m.

Although the alarm was quickly raised, “it could have come in faster.” he said. ’ ‘ Human beings asleep at three o’clock in the morning are not efficient smoke detectors.”

The tenants of the five apartments affected by the fire arc still staying with friends and relatives, Mr. Hurley said, and added that once they arc settled elsewhere they will probably not move back into the building. Cleanup operations are under way in all nine apartments, he said.

Insurance adjusters have yet to set a value on the damage to the building, said Mr. Hurley, who could not give an estimate on the damage.

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