A bill requiring proof of fire and smoke damper inspections, which critics called a jobs-creation bill to benefit the local Sheet Metal Workers union, passed Thursday.
City Council voted unanimously, with Councilman Allan Domb abstaining, to require proof of inspection of fire and smoke dampers in high-rise buildings, hospitals, and hotels in Philadelphia by licensed sheet metal technicians.
Domb owns several high-rise residential buildings in the city and saw the vote as a conflict of interest.
Building owners have called the bill, which the Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 has tried to get passed twice before over the course of eight years, wholly unnecessary and a blatant jobs-creation move by the union, whose members would likely be the only qualified people to do the inspections.
The union had argued the inspections were critical to protect larger buildings as more rise in the city. Pittsburgh recently passed a similar law. The fire code already requires damper inspections, but not proof of inspection or specific qualifications for inspectors.
“We call this the fire life-safety bill, as we do, for a very good reason," Gary Masino, president of the union, said during a December hearing. “It’s absolutely essential to protect human life in an event of a fire."
Fire dampers, activated by heat, close within a building’s HVAC system to block a fire from spreading. Smoke dampers work similarly but typically are triggered by computerized sensors.
The bill requires proof of fire damper inspections every four to six years and annual inspections of smoke-control systems. The inspections could be performed only by licensed sheet metal technicians who have completed a sheet metal technician apprenticeship program. The only program of the kind in Philadelphia is offered through the union, though other programs exist statewide.
The inspections often require cutting into walls or HVAC systems and could run upward of $90,000 for the largest high rises, said Keli Wallace, chair of Philadelphia’s Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA).
In a December hearing, Masino cited the World Trade Center collapse, a 1980 fire at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and the 1991 blaze at One Meridian Plaza in Philadelphia as places where functioning dampers could have helped.
Wallace said it was misleading to cite fires from 30 years ago, where there were no dampers. And reference to the World Trade Center terrorist attack, where the towers by all accounts would have fallen with or without dampers, was “simply unconscionable," she said.
BOMA isn’t against making proof of inspections mandatory, but has asked that the bill exempt buildings that are fully sprinklered, and allow all qualified engineers to perform the tests, not just those certified by the union.
“Local 19 is being completely self-serving in its pursuit of this legislation,” Wallace said this week. “If they were genuinely concerned about ‘safety,’ they should not be opposed to the inclusion of registered professional engineers or fire alarm vendors as an alternative to perform ... these tests. Don’t get me wrong.... Sheet metal workers do great work, but they are not the most qualified to conduct these inspections.”
The Administration had asked Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, the bill’s sponsor, to consider an amendment that would exempt buildings with full sprinkler and fire alarm systems. “In light of the fact the amendment was not acted on, the Administration needs to conduct further review of the legislation,” Kenney’s spokesperson Deana Gamble said.
Debate among the administration and lobbyists for the business community and the union has been heated. The December hearing erupted into shouting from both sides.
Twice before, similar bills have died in Council, but this time the measure passed. The union hired as its lobbyist Zoning Board of Adjustment Chair Frank DiCicco. The bill advanced unanimously out of committee in early December.
There are political considerations, too, with a primary scheduled for May. The Sheet Metal Workers have contributed to several Council members over the years, including Blackwell. She has received at least $6,500 from the Sheet Metal Workers since 2011, according to campaign finance records.
Blackwell did not return multiple requests for comments.
Councilman Allan Domb, who owns several high-rise apartment buildings around the city, said he thinks all inspections — from dampers to elevators — should be done by independent inspectors. He stopped short of saying he’d oppose the bill on Thursday, though. “I haven’t decide how I’ll vote,” he said.
Robert Solomon, a fire protection engineer with the National Fire Protection Association, which sets national standards for fire safety, said the association does not have a position on who conducts the inspections. “From our perspective, it doesn’t matter as long as it’s getting inspected by someone with knowledge and qualifications," he said.
While he stressed that the association recommends inspections every four to six years, as the bill would mandate, he could not name an instance when a fire could have been suppressed had a faulty damper been operational. “None that come to mind," he said. “Typically, when we’ve got a case or fire investigation, we tend to see those [damper] systems weren’t installed at all.”