Councilman Seeks New Abandoned Building Law After Deadly Kensington Warehouse Blaze

New law would require building inspectors to work with firefighters to survey abandoned buildings

In the wake of a deadly warehouse blaze that killed two firemen, a Philadelphia councilman is calling for a new law that would allow firefighters to better understand the condition of tens of thousands of abandoned buildings in the city.

Councilman Dennis O'Brien on Thursday said he is seeking to pass a new ordinance that will require the Department of Licenses & Inspections to work with the Philadelphia Fire Department to survey the city's estimated 35,000 abandoned buildings.

After that initial survey, the two city agencies would then evaluate each building so that firefighters arriving to fight a fire at one of those locations would be aware of dangerous conditions inside like unstable walls or floors, O'Brien said.

The councilman says the firefighters could help identify potential dangers that their crews might face which L&I inspectors may not realize. The hope is that some of the most dangerous issues could also be fixed to avoid any risk to crews.

Each building would be marked with a reflective placard that would list some of the hazardous conditions firefighters could face at or inside that structure, officials said.

"Everyday that you don't have a comprehensive strategy in place, the public is at risk and as we know, the firefighters that respond to these commercial and industrial buildings are at risk," O'Brien said.

O'Brien made his announcement at Philadelphia City Hall alongside of the families of Fire Lt. Robert Neary and firefighter Daniel Sweeney.

Neary, 60, and Sweeney, 25, were killed on April 9, 2012 as they fought a five-alarm blaze at a former hosiery warehouse at 1817 E. York Street in the Kensington section of the city.

Both firefighters at Ladder 10, the men were working to knock down flames which spread to an adjacent furniture store when a wall collapsed, burying them under brick and mortar.

A source of much concern in the neighborhood, residents who lived near the warehouse said they complained to both the city and the building's New York-based owners about its dangerous condition.

Following the blaze, city officials said the property had been cited four times by the Department of Licenses & Inspections and that the building's owners owed $72,000 in back taxes and unpaid utilities. The property was also on track to be seized by the city and auctioned off.

A grand jury was convened to investigate whether criminal negligence was present, but nearly two years later the investigation remains open.

Diane Neary also filed a lawsuit against the building's owners, Nahman Lichtenstein and Yechial Lichtenstein of Brooklyn and Toby Moskovits.

Rebecca Swanson, spokeswoman for the Department of Licenses & Inspections, said her agency has spent the past three years putting a vacant property strategy in place. She says L&I already developed a database of abandoned properties and has been working to inspect them all.

So far, she says, L&I inspectors have checked on 13,000 of some 25,000 properties and that about 8,500 property owners were cited for violations. They're also trained to write fire code violations, she said.

"We do evaluate properties from the outside and make known and cite all violations that can be seen," she said. As is the case with anyone, officials are not allowed to enter a building without obtaining an emergency order from a judge. Entering without approved probable cause would violate the Fourth Amendment.

When openings, where squatters or vandals could enter a building are found, owners are given five days to fix the issue, Swanson said. If they don't comply, city crews will seal them up with plywood or masonry and then bill the owner for the cost.

Swanson said L&I already shares data with the fire department and asks that anyone who has a problem vacant property in their neighborhood should contact 311.

O'Brien introduced the ordinance to Philadelphia City Council on Thursday. The law will have to undergo several hearings before it could be voted on for passage.

Pictured: Lt. Robert Neary (L) and Firefighter Daniel Sweeney (R).

Contact Vince Lattanzio at 610.668.5532, or follow @VinceLattanzio on Twitter.

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