DOI Report Exposes NYCHA’s Failure to Maintain Fire Safety Devices

Mark Peters, Commissioner of the Department of Investigation. Image credit: CityLand

The Department of Investigation’s Report found that NYCHA maintenance workers were negligent in their duties to ensure smoke and CO detectors were functioning. On October 4, 2016, the Department of Investigation issued a Report finding that New York City Housing Authority maintenance workers frequently ignored their obligation to perform safety checks and often falsified documents to cover up their negligence. DOI Commissioner Mark G. Peters stated in the Report that, “DOI has now found that NYCHA workers blatantly flouted basic precautions, supervisors failed to check on them, and tragedy was the result.”

The Department of Investigation’s inquiry into NYCHA was a result of an apartment fire at Butler Houses on April 13, 2016, which caused the death of two children, ages one and two. The FDNY’s report concluded that the apartment’s smoke detectors were not operational. A DOI investigation of the fire led to the discovery that a NYCHA maintenance worker had visited the apartment four hours prior to the fire to conduct routine maintenance on a clogged shower drain. NYCHA requires maintenance staff to check the status of six critical apartment safety issues every time they enter a unit, including checking for a fire safety procedure sticker, a working CO detector, a working smoke detector, window guards, and other features. During the DOI’s investigation the maintenance worker claimed that one of the two smoke alarms did not work, but that he had checked both. The worker, however, told Brian Clarke, NYCHA’s Senior Vice President for Property Management Operations that both smoke detectors in the apartment were not working. However, the worker indicated in the work order that all six safety items were satisfactory.

DOI performed an independent systemic investigation to determine the accuracy of NYCHA maintenance workers’ reports regarding the inspection of the six apartment safety items. DOI inspected 188 apartments in three NYCHA developments in the Bronx, Staten Island, and Manhattan. In 106 of the 188 apartments (56%) DOI investigators observed deficiencies in one or more of the six critical safety items, including missing smoke and CO detectors. DOI compared its findings to the NYCHA maintenance reports and found that for 31 apartments (29%) NYCHA maintenance staff failed to report that smoke or CO detectors were missing, damaged, or not functioning. At Butler Houses, where the fire occurred, the DOI found deficiencies in 70 of the 114 apartments (61%) they re-inspected. For the 62 apartments at Butler Houses that maintenance reports were available, NYCHA maintenance workers inaccurately reported that smoke alarms or CO alarms were functioning in 25 apartments (42%).

DOI determined that there was widespread disregard of NYCHA rules by maintenance staff which required staff to inspect and accurately document the status of the six critical apartment safety items every time they entered an apartment. DOI found that maintenance workers frequently ignored their obligation to perform the safety checks. Furthermore, DOI obtained admissions from a supervisor who did not routinely perform spot checks to review completed work.

After a thorough investigation, DOI reached several conclusions. The failure of the maintenance worker to report the faulty smoke detectors involved in the April 13th fire was not an isolated instance, “but rather one example of a culture in which some NYCHA maintenance staff neglect to perform their job duties as required to protect public housing residents, and their supervisors fail to consistently review their work and hold them accountable.” Further, DOI referred nine NYCHA staff member for employee disciplinary action.

DOI made several recommendations to NYCHA. First, DOI recommended that NYCHA should immediately commence an audit in a sampling of developments citywide for the six apartment safety items. Where problems are identified, NYCHA should conduct a thorough and comprehensive testing of the development. Second, NYCHA should develop and implement a plan to ensure future compliance with NYCHA rules. The plan should include additional training, quality assurance checks and affirmative audits of the condition of the safety items in NYCHA apartments. Third, NYCHA should require not just visual inspections, but also physical tests of apartment smoke and CO alarms. Fourth, NYCHA should improve its recordkeeping in order to document safety conditions as well as apartment maintenance and repair. Fifth, NYCHA must consider appropriate disciplinary action against the nine employees found during the DOI investigation to be negligent.

To read the full DOI Report, click here.

By: Jonathon Sizemore (Jonathon is the CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2016).

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