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O'Brien bill seeks to fix cracks at L&I

City Council’s L&I Committee approves protocols for dealing with dilapidated, abandoned and dangerous big commercial buidlings.

THE DEATHS of two Philadelphia firefighters in April 2012 prompted City Council's Licenses and Inspections Committee to move forward on a bill yesterday that makes critical changes in how the city deals with its large, vacant buildings left to rot.

The measure amends the fire code to identify, track and inspect these behemoth buildings, some of which already have citations for code violations or have been abandoned by their owners. The bill essentially creates a database of the "worst of the worst" commercial and industrial buildings slated to be sealed for demolition.

"Simply inspecting to determine vacancy and issuing a citation for any property-maintenance or fire-code violations is not enough to truly protect our citizens and our first responders," said L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams.

"Our goal, and the city's goal, is to restore these properties to productive use so that they no longer pose a safety threat to anyone."

On April 9, 2012, firefighters Robert Neary and Daniel Sweeney were killed when they responded to a warehouse fire on York Street in Kensington. Three others were injured in the four-alarm fire which spread to an adjacent paper-storage plant, fanning the flames even more.

"This is a national toolbox that we're implementing here," said Councilman Dennis O'Brien, the bill's primary sponsor.

"L&I is instituting all kinds of new procedures . . . These large, commercial industrial buildings - I know what it is when you take a piece of machinery as big as this room and you take it out - it leaves a hole in the floor. You need these [new] floor plans because you could walk in and, zoom, you disappear. It creates open tunnels where fires can just fly through. This really is being recognized nationally."

Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer said the ordinance establishes four things: a Vacant Property Task Force charged with creating an inventory of vacant properties; an index of information on those properties that supports emergency preparedness and the safety of firefighters and first responders; a list of past inspections; cross-city agency coordination and sharing of pertinent data.

"Fires in vacant and abandoned structures have been a source of firefighter injuries and line-of-duty deaths," Sawyer said.

"There are no structures in the city of Philadelphia worth the life of a firefighter," he said.

The bill, which has the full support of the Nutter administration, has its first reading before City Council at today's meeting. It could be voted on as early as next week.