Watch CBS News

Exclusive: Philadelphia Licenses And Inspections To Enact Stricter Standards For Fire Escape Safety Amid Controversy

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Questions by CBS3 have prompted Philadelphia Licenses and Inspections to enact stricter standards to ensure fire escapes are safe and capable of helping residents flee a fire. During the winter, there are more fires than at other times of the year.

The Philadelphia Fire Department says there have been 35 fire deaths so far this year.

Flames recently ripped through a Germantown apartment building, and residents -- who chose not to be identified -- say escaping the fire was not easy.

"I thought we would perish on that fire escape. We went down to the fire escape and the bottom part didn't work," one resident said.

One man says he jumped to safety from the second floor.

"I should have waited for the ladder, but I didn't," he said.

Philadelphia's Licenses and Inspections Department says the fire escape was in working condition that night of Jan. 21.

But the residents' accounts of what happened raised a bigger question -- was the fire escape up to code?

philadelphia fire escapes
(Credit: CBS3)

National fire escape expert Cisco Meneses examined it for CBS3 right after the fire.

"You can see rust, that's just with the naked eye. Someone signed off and they shouldn't have," Meneses, founder of the National Fire Escape Association, said.

L&I cited building owner "5721 Morris LP" with an unsafe violation in October 2017. That initial inspection was required by a new city ordinance. It says all building owners must have their fire escapes and balconies inspected.

Even though the fire escape passed reinspection four months before the fire, L&I documents show the fire escape is still not up to code. The department reissued violations in October 2019.

"There was a finding by an engineer that the fire escape was safe with repair," L&I spokesperson Karen Guss said. "Those unsafe concerns in that first unsafe report, some of those were never addressed."

Guss says two different engineers inspected the fire escape.

So, why did L&I go with the safe report?

"They thought the second report resolved the unsafe concern," she said.

The confusion is now prompting L&I to take action and strengthen its regulations for fire escapes and balconies.

"You contributed to this realization when you asked about the ordinance. We realized we needed to firm up the meaning of safe with repair. Too nebulous to monitor, it did not have clear deadlines for action," Guss said. "If a property is safe but needs work done within six months, then you can tell us that it is safe with repair. And we will monitor for that six-month period to make sure that work gets done."

An attorney for the Morris Street property said, "My client is not aware of an unsafe condition. There is another inspection being conducted by L&I and if there are any unsafe issues, my client will make the necessary repairs."

The June fire balcony collapse at the Lexington Apartments in West Philadelphia also raised safe-with-repair concerns. Two people were injured. L&I says it's not sure if repairs were ever made because it never received the inspection reports.

A spokesperson for the Lexington Apartments could not comment because of litigation. Going forward, L&I says it is dedicating more manpower for enforcement.

"If those repairs are not done, we will take them to court," Guss said.

Currently, 32 unsafe fire escapes in Philadelphia need repair.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.