I-Team: Despite Thousands of Complaints, Some Unsafe Fire Escapes Go Months Without Getting Fixed

More than 2,000 complaints about fire escape safety were called in to 311 over the last year and a half, resulting in nearly 500 violations, an I-Team investigation has found. Many of those problems went months before being fixed.

Data from 311 shows it takes an average of three weeks for investigators to resolve safety complaints about fire escapes. For some residents, it can take months to get a response. Some complaints are quite serious, from blocked exits to missing slats. Rust is another common violation.

When John Serdula got locked on the roof of his West Village building this spring, the only way out was down the fire escape. He had never tested it in the 17 years he lived in the building, and when he did, he says he got an unwelcome surprise.

"When I was coming down I realized everything was shaky," Serdula said. "From the very top floor, one step broke. And then on the way down further two more broke."

According to city records, seven 311 calls were made about the fire escape at Serdula's address between February and June. All those complaints were referred to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The agency never responded to the first two calls. A spokesman said those calls were made during peak heat season; 50,000 no-heat complaints were made in February alone.

Icon Realty Management said it received its first violation for the fire escapes April 3.

The FDNY says it responded April 3 when the department received a complaint. It referred the matter to the Department of Buildings. Soon after that, the management of Serdula's building fixed the fire escape.

According to fire safety experts, most people are like Serdula: they never think about their fire escape until they need it. But in some cases, what you don't know could kill you. In July, a Brooklyn father of three died after jumping from his third floor window to escape a fire.

Serdula says he's lucky he discovered the hazard before a real emergency. The city responded to his calls shortly after a deadly gas explosion across the street. But he questions why it wasn't taken care of right away.

"Nobody came to inspect it," he said. "How many times do you have to call before someone finally investigates?"

Residents on Woodbine Street in Queens say they call 311 constantly to complain about toys and other items on their neighbor's fire escape. Such obstructions are clear dangers in their minds, especially since there have been fires in the past.

"People can't get through," said resident Marie Putino. "God forbid there's a fire"

Residents have never had to evacuate so they haven't had to test the escapes. The building recently changed ownership. The new landlord said when they receive violations, they make repairs.

John Tinghitella, a former New York City fire marshal who now provides expert testimony in fire investigations, said residents need to check their own fire escapes before an emergency arises.

“One wrong move could be it," Tinghitella said.

He said it's important to make sure nothing is blocking the window that leads to a fire escape, and that that window opens easily. Locks that require keys are dangerous, he said.

He said fire escapes should be securely attached to the building and do not shake. Building owners and residents should check to make sure stairs and ladder rungs aren't missing and that hand rails are secure, he said. Nothing should be stored on a fire escape: no plants, tools or toys.

Tinghitella said inspectors can't get to every building, so residents should plan to find dangerous conditions themselves.

"There’s a lot of buildings and not enough time to inspect everything," he said.

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