Union scores hot win over real estate industry in fire code battle

City officials are brokering a deal they hope will extinguish a feud over Philadelphia’s fire code.

Sheet Metal Workers protest in Council (Jake Blumgart/WHYY)

Sheet Metal Workers protest in Council (Jake Blumgart/WHYY)

This story originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

City officials are brokering a deal they hope will extinguish a feud over Philadelphia’s fire code.

The dispute between the city’s Sheet Metal Workers Union and local real estate industry groups stems from a proposed new regulation requiring costly new annual inspections of the fire protection devices mandated for most high-rise buildings.

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Introduced by City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, the proposed inspections of smoke and fire dampers, which prevent flames from spreading through a building’s HVAC system, would have to be conducted by workers affiliated with the union and their associated contractors. The legislation was introduced a year ago and finally brought to a council committee for discussion on Monday.

To real estate industry advocates, the bill adds another layer of costly and redundant regulation to a local development process that is already too expensive and burdened by union rules.

These critics argue there is no evidence that annual, in-person inspections of dampers would improve safety. The fire infrastructure is already inspected upon installation and can be monitored from afar by computer.  Even if a building’s electricity were to fail, most modern high-rises have a secondary power source, they say.

“To propose legislation which places significant and unnecessary burdens on our members is questionable, at best,” said Rich McClure, vice president of Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), an industry trade group. “The requirements sought by this bill exceed what our insurance carriers are seeking. If insurance companies saw this as a true risk and concern, they would be driving this effort, not a group standing to benefit from the bill’s passage.”

McClure said that damper failure is “extremely remote”

Union supporters argue that the reform will make buildings safer at a time when tall buildings are multiplying across the city.

“The reform that this bill adds to the city fire code are absolutely essential to protect human life in the event of a fire,”  said Gary Masino, president of Sheet Metal Workers Local Union 19. “If dampers are not subject to regular inspection, there is no way of knowing that they will work.”

Masino and his colleagues pointed to a devastating 1991 high-rise fire at One Meridian Plaza, across from City Hall, and even the September 11 terrorist attacks to support their case.

BOMA projects that the inspections would cost $90,000 annually for a moderately sized 600,000 square-foot office building.

Monday’s hearing ended with a victory for the union, as the bill advanced out of committee.

The win in the Council chambers prompted action elsewhere in City Hall.

By Tuesday afternoon, officials representing the Department of Licenses and Inspections had met privately with Blackwell, union officials, and industry representatives. In that closed setting, the group came to an agreement that seems to guarantee the sheet metal workers will win some changes to the fire code in the new year.

“We had a productive meeting today after all the sides cooled off,” said Karen Guss, spokesperson for the Department of Licenses and Inspections. “The administration agreed to develop some draft amendments and circulate over the next few months.”

Guss would not provide the details of the compromise.

This is the third time in the last eight years that bills to mandate damper inspections by the Sheet Metal trade have been considered by City Council. This is the union’s most successful reform push so far: No other such bill made it out of committee.

On Monday, union supporters packed the Council chambers, making for an unusually lively meeting of the Committee of Licenses and Inspections. Attendees backing the legislation repeatedly interrupted testimony from industry representatives with cries of  “how much is a life worth” that culminated in an angry exchange that prompted Masino to storm out of the hearing.

“You are lying to the public,” Masino shouted at McClure during the industry group’s testimony.

“You have in your testimony at least a half-dozen inaccuracies we did not correct,” retorted McClure. “We have been extremely respectful. Should we continue with the abuse?”

This time around, the Sheet Metal workers retained the services of former City Councilman Frank DiCicco, who is now a lobbyist and the head of the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

City records show that his work with the union dates back to November of 2016.

BOMA, meanwhile, lobbies on its own behalf or with informal aid, and has not hired external registered lobbyists.

Councilman Allan Domb questioned union representatives extensively throughout the hearing. He pointed out that today’s high-rises have full sprinkler coverage whereas One Meridian only had them starting at the 30th floor. Domb asked why these proposed inspections wouldn’t be conducted by a licensed third-party engineer instead of a Licenses and Inspections certified “Sheet Metal Systems Technician.”

Gerald Waites, a lawyer for the Sheet Metal Workers, responded by noting that elevator tests are similarly conducted by elevator mechanics, not outside engineers. That statement elicited a different reaction than he may have hoped.

“Not just for this bill, but any time the city should have third-party, unaffiliated, licensed, engineers do inspections,” Domb said after the hearing. “This bill brought to light what is going on for me [with elevators and this sheet metal proposal]. It should be independent, not someone who has a financial interest by finding something. That’s like having a real estate agent do their own home inspection.”

Elevator inspections are overseen by the state, Guss said.

But sprinklers and fire alarm systems are inspected and certified annually by tradespeople licensed by the city to install those systems.

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