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Boston-area officials urge caution after deadly apartment fires in other cities

A combination smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector installed on a ceiling. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
A combination smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector installed on a ceiling. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Shaken by recent deadly apartment fires in New York City and Philadelphia, fire officials and housing advocates in Boston urged caution during this season’s frigid weather — the kind of cold that prompts people to take potentially risky measures to stay warm.

Gerard Mahoney, chief of the Cambridge Fire Department, said landlords and property managers need to ensure that smoke detectors are installed and properly functioning.

“I just find that extremely tragic, that in this day and age in this country, we're still having fires with multiple losses of life,” Mahoney said, reflecting on the fires that killed 19 people in a Bronx highrise and 12 people in a Philadelphia rowhouse.

“It's 2022. It's time that all residential properties, particularly high rise properties, are fully sprinklered," Mahoney said.

In Massachusetts, landlords are responsible for installing sprinklers when more than 50% of an apartment is renovated, according to Douglas Quattrochi, executive director of MassLandlords Inc., an association of local property owners.

Quattrochi said his group tweeted out news to members about the New York fire, “because we want landlords to feel that visceral responsibility.” Landlords must have hardwired smoke detectors in all indoor common areas and additional units depending on building size. They also must have carbon monoxide detectors on every floor where gas is used, among other requirements.

But there’s a lot of room for neglect and human error when it comes to fire.

The Boston Housing Authority, the city’s largest housing provider, inspects and replaces batteries annually in its fire alarms, according to spokesman Brian Jordan.

“All fire alarm inspections are currently up to date,” he said in an email response to WBUR’s inquiry.

He also said space heaters are generally prohibited in Boston Housing apartments, although BHA provides them temporarily in the event of a heat outage.

Mahoney and other officials warned that residents, too, need to take responsibility for safety.

“People need to be proactive, not reactive to prevent disasters. Check your battery; check your smoke detectors,” said Brian Alkins, a spokesman for the Boston fire department.

Space heaters, in particular, should be used with caution, officials said. And people need to be vigilant about keeping their smoke detectors intact.

“One of the problems in residential buildings that we see time and time again, whether it's a three-family … or a four-family house, is tenants will often disconnect smoke detectors,” Mahoney said. “Somebody burns food cooking, they remove the smoke detector and they either choose not to put it back or they forget to put it back. And one thing leads to another.”

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