Nearly three years before last week's deadly row house fire in Philadelphia killed a dozen people, a bill to upgrade smoke alarms and prevent such tragedies was introduced in the Pennsylvania state Legislature.
The bill, House Bill 1236, would have required all rental properties in the state to install tamper-proof smoke alarms that were either hardwired to a building's electrical system or have batteries that last 10 years. Its prime mover was a Republican state representative from suburban Bucks County, Todd Polinchock.
But Polinchock’s bill, which was formally introduced in April 2019 and co-sponsored by another Republican lawmaker, never came up for a vote.
Why? Polinchock said he’s not exactly sure, but said that groups representing the big landlords in the state probably would have balked at his bill being on the calendar.
“The landlords falsely believe that the expense will be that great, but since it is a phase-in period that does not require changing of working smoke alarms immediately, it will not be that expensive,” Polinchock said in an email.
Also, Polinchock said, tougher new federal safety standards means that smoke alarms like the ones that were found stripped of their batteries after the Jan. 5 blaze in Philadelphia are already on their way out.
Donald Konkle, a former Harrisburg fire chief and retired executive director of the Pennsylvania Fire & Emergency Services Institute, said the smoke alarm upgrades that Polinchock’s bill would have mandated are long overdue.
Asked whether it would have made of difference on Jan. 5, Konkle answered, “I think most of the people would have escaped.”
Polinchock, who is also a former president of the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors, said another possible roadblock for his bill was concern of government overreach.
“Then there is the feeling among some folks that we should be staying out of peoples’ lives as much as possible,” he said in a telephone interview. “I’m for that, too, except when it comes to public safety.”
Which is why Polinchock is trying once again to get his bill, now known as House Bill 860, passed into law.
It overcame one hurdle in June, when it got the green light to proceed to the Legislature from the Pennsylvania House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness committee.
In his pitch, Polinchock noted that in 2018 Pennsylvania had the third-highest rate of civilian fire deaths in the country and that most of those fatalities were due to “no working smoke alarms,” either because the batteries had been removed “or were dead.”
“I think we have the votes this year to get this bill passed, especially in light of what happened in Philadelphia,” Polinchock said. “Also, there is a two-year phase-in period that gives landlords time to replace the smoke alarms.”
The seven smoke alarms in the Philadelphia row house were the kind that required batteries to be replaced every few months, Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said Tuesday.
Just one of them was working when the blaze started. Investigators say it was caused by a child playing with a lighter near a Christmas tree.
Four of the smoke alarms were found in drawers, a fifth was found on the floor with its battery removed, and a sixth was still attached to a ceiling but its battery was removed as well, Thiel said. The seventh and only working smoke alarm was in the basement, but it activated too late to have any impact.
Research compiled by the National Fire Protection Association found that “the No. 1 reason why people disable smoke alarms is due to nuisance alarms caused by cooking.”
The person who decides whether a bill gets vetted by the House is the majority leader, a post currently held by state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, a Republican whose district includes parts of Centre and Mifflin counties in the middle of the state.
NBC News reached out to Benninghoff for comment, but he has not replied.
Benninghoff was elected to the majority leader post in June 2020. And records show that he has received a $5,000 campaign contribution in March 2020 from a landlords group called the Pennsylvania Apartment Association.
Leah Sailhamer, spokeswoman for the PAA, said the group "maintains a neutral position on House Bill 860."
"Given the bill is a mandate on the multi-family housing industry, we struggled to outright support the bill," Sailhamer said in a statement. "However, most of our members have already started using the ten-year batteries in their properties. Originally, the bill posed some additional concerns for our members, but we worked with the sponsor of the bill to address the concerns and move forward with a neutral position."
Rick Allan, a lobbyist on behalf of the Pennsylvania Residential Owners Association, which represents smaller landlords in the state, said they too weighed-in on both of Polinchock's proposed bills.
"To be accurate, when the subject was first proposed, we worked with all effective parties to draft legislation that would be agreeable to everyone that would not impose excessive costs and requirements," Allan said in an email.
Allan said many PROA landlords are also already starting to replace their worn-out smoke alarms with the tamper-proof kind that have 10-year batteries.
Mike Straub, spokesman for House Speaker Bryan Cutler, a Republican from Lancaster County, said it’s hard to get any bill passed.
“There are literally thousands of pieces of legislation that do not get across the finish line, and sometimes it can take multiple sessions for members to gather the necessary support for a specific issue to move through the House, Senate and reach the Governor’s desk,” Straub said in an email.
But Straub agreed that what happened in Philadelphia could give Polinchock’s bill a boost.
“Sadly, I would agree the tragedy in Philadelphia puts a heightened awareness on the importance of this legislation,” Straub said.
Even if Polinchock’s original bill had been not be tabled in November 2020, it would have not been passed in time to prevent the Philadelphia row house fire, in which eight of the fatalities were children.
The three-story house at 869 N. 23rd St., in Philadelphia’s Fairmount section, is owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which is regulated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Development, better known as HUD.
But when it comes to what kind of smoke alarms are required, HUD defers to local authorities, a spokesperson said in an email.
“HUD requires properties and units supported through its rental assistance programs to adhere to state and local building fire codes which vary by jurisdiction,” the spokesperson said. “HUD’s inspection standards for public housing includes comprehensive fire safety requirements in units, common areas, and building systems.”
Four battery-operated smoke detectors were installed in 2019 during a PHA inspection, Philadelphia Fire Department First Deputy Commissioner Craig Murphy said immediately after the blaze. Two more were installed during a 2020 inspection of the building.
“None of them operated” at the time of the fire, Murphy said.