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December 30, 2022

Nearly one year after deadly Fairmount fire, U.S. to mandate better smoke alarms in public housing

The measure, introduced by Sen. Bob Casey and Rep. Madeleine Dean this summer, was written into the $1.7 trillion government spending bill signed by President Biden on Thursday

Nearly one year after 12 people died in a rowhome fire in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, the United States is set to require the installation of tamper-resistant smoke alarms in public housing nationwide. 

The measure was initially introduced in June by Sen. Bob Casey and Rep. Madeleine Dean in response to the blaze, which was started by a 5-year-old in the property at 869 N. 23rd St. playing with a lighter near a Christmas tree in the upper unit of the house. Adam Thiel, the city's fire commissioner, said that the smoke detectors inside the unit were inoperable.

During an investigation into the cause of the deadliest single blaze in Philadelphia in more than a century, Philadelphia Housing Authority CEO Kelvin Jeremiah reported that smoke alarms with 10-year lithium ion batteries were installed and deemed operational in both units of the property, including two tamper-resistant alarms in the upper unit of the property. 

Thiel said that investigators who scoured the scene found that none of the smoke alarms in the upper unit of the property appear to have been working at the time of the fire, and nearly all of them were older models requiring a 9-volt battery. A newer smoke alarm was installed in the basement, but was late to respond to the fire since it began on the upper level of the building. 

The legislation passed in the U.S. House shortly after being introduced, and Casey's office confirmed earlier this month that the measure had been added to the text of the $1.7 trillion government spending bill that was signed by President Joe Biden on Thursday in order to avoid a government shutdown. 

"When a Philadelphia fire killed 12 people, including 9 children, in a public housing unit, I took action with Representative Madeleine Dean to ensure that families are protected from this kind of tragedy in the future," Casey said in a written statement. "I am proud to say that our Public and Federally Assisted Housing Fire Safety Act was included in the end-of-year spending bill. This legislation is simple: by requiring more reliable smoke detectors in affordable housing, we can save lives. No one should have to choose between affordability and safety in their home." 

Philadelphia has become a national leader in pushing for the installation of smoke alarms powered by 10-year, lithium ion batteries, Thiel said. It's much more difficult to remove the batteries than it is with older models. In December 2021, the Fire Department installed 1,100 of the newer model smoke detectors in houses throughout the city. 

Tamper-resistant smoke alarms must be installed in each level and near each sleeping unit of any dwelling operated by a public housing agency, according to the bill. This includes basements and common areas, but excludes attics and crawlspaces. The smoke alarm must include notifications for people with hearing loss. 

The victims of the Fairmount fire were all family members who were authorized to live inside the property. They had resided there since 2011 as their family continued to expand. The victims of the fire were laid to rest during a public funeral ceremony held at the Liacouras Center. 

There, Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church's senior pastor Rev. Dr. Alyn E. Waller officiated the service to mourn and pay tribute to each of the victims. The 12 victims included Rosalee Nicole McDonald, 33; Quintien Tate-McDonald, 16; Destiny McDonald, 15; DeKwan Robinson, 8; J'Kwan Robinson, 5; Taniesha Robinson, 3; Tiffany Robinson, 2; Virginia Maria Thomas, 30; Shaniece Wayne, 10; Janiyah Roberts, 4; and Quinsha Vanessa White, 18. 

"It hurt me so bad that the whole time I was in there, they were waiting for me to come home," Howard Robinson, the father of four children who had been hospitalized in the weeks prior to the fire, said during the funeral. "I still thank God that he gave me that one day to spend with them before that happened. You never know. If you got loved ones in this room, just hug them and tell them that you love them, because it's sad to say that you never know when that last day is going to come." 

Philadelphia homeowners can have smoke alarms installed in their properties by contacting Philly311. The Fire Department will install a smoke detector inside the home within 60 days after the request is made. For those living in apartments or rental properties, landlords are required to provide smoke alarms on every level of the home. If a landlord has not provided smoke alarms, tenants can call Philly311 to report the violation.