After a Fatal Fire, Councilman Presses for Mandatory Emergency Communication Systems in High-rises

Officials say that an emergency alarm system may have saved Daniel McClung.

Officials say that an emergency alarm system may have saved Daniel McClung.

When a fire broke out on the 20th floor of the Strand Condominium on January 5, some residents tried to escape by running down the stairwells. Daniel McClung and Michael Todd Cohen, a married couple who lived on the 38th floor of the Hell’s Kitchen tower, made it only 7 floors before succumbing to smoke inhalation; Mr. Cohen survived, Mr. McClung did not.

Following the blaze, the FDNY said that the men should have stayed in their apartment, a seemingly counterintuitive move that few would be inclined to make without explicit instructions from firefighters. Unfortunately, firefighters opened the exterior door to bring firehoses into the stairwell that Mr. Cohen and Mr. McClung were descending, sending up plumes of smoke that overpowered the men.

Now councilman Corey Johnson is proposing legislation that would make emergency communication systems in stairwells, already required in hotels and commercial buildings, mandatory for any residential building over six stories. In fireproof highrises, the safest place for residents is often their own apartments, according to the FDNY, even if most people’s first instinct would be to flee a burning building.

“The tragic death at The Strand was entirely preventable,” said councilman Johnson in a release. “The legislation I’m proposing will require buildings higher than six stories to have Emergency Communication Systems in stairwells, which could inform residents to either ‘stay or go.’”

The communications systems would augment building sprinklers, which have been mandatory in all high-rise construction and buildings undergoing significant renovations since 1999. The following year sprinkler installation was recommended, though not required, for all one- and two- family homes. Thomas Von Essen, the former fire commission who supported those changes, has also come out in favor of the new legislation.

“If older buildings are able to add wiring for the internet and cable TV, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to require a public address speaker system in the stairwells that might save lives,” Mr. Von Essen said in a statement.

Mr. Cohen’s family also supports the legislation. “I know the facts of this case and a communication breakdown was a major part of the problem. The details continue to come in. But they got caught in the ‘attack’ stairwell,” said Mr. Cohen’s brother Greg, who lives in Massachusetts.  “A communications system would have saved them.”

Meanwhile, friends of the couple continue their campaign to raise money to aid in the recovery of Mr. Cohen, who was critically injured in the balze.