Fire Safety for Seniors

An Upper East Side tragedy highlights a risk that increases with age

21 Feb 2020 | 10:43

By the time firefighters had fought their way into Joel Beeler’s bedroom on the 25th floor of 351 East 84th St. just after 9 p.m. on Valentine’s Day, it was too late. The 76-year-old was pronounced dead at the scene “with severe burns about his body,” according to the police report. The Fire Marshal's investigation later determined the cause to be "accidental, smoking."

Beeler’s fate is all too common among seniors, according to data cited by the New York City Fire Department. People aged 65 years and older are more than twice as likely to die in a fire than the general population, while over half of all senior fire fatalities are linked to smoking or heating equipment.

“Nighttime fires are the ones we see with elder fatalities, because you’re disoriented, also because many times you could have medication that might induce more sedation than usual,” says Chief Jim Manning, battalion commander of the FDNY 10th Battalion, whose initial first due response area runs from the East Side from the mid-60s to 105th Street.

To avoid nocturnal fire emergencies, Manning emphasizes the importance of preventative measures — including placing space heaters far away from flammable objects, keeping cooking appliances in good condition and not “being silly with storage.”

“Sometimes people take the unusual tack to use their unused ovens/broilers as a storage option,” he says. Carrie Bradshaws take note: It’s a space-saving measure that can lead to trouble.

“We get grease fires constantly,” Manning adds. “Not cleaning your broiler is a hazard.”

In order to react quickly to a fire — at night or any time — preparation is key. “Have a plan of action. Plan ahead, and know the location of your fire escapes,” says Manning. He also highlights the importance of keeping these emergency exits accessible at all times: “We don’t encourage fire gates with keys. We’ve had instances where people have locked themselves into their own apartments.”

Manning advises anyone waking up to a fire emergency to remain as close to the ground as possible to avoid smoke inhalation while heading for an escape route. “The good air is down,” he explains. “If they know enough to stay down, they’re going to gain crucial seconds.”

Landlords are required to provide working smoke alarms, but tenants are responsible for maintaining them, according to the ABCs of Housing. The FDNY's website says: "NYC law requires landlords of homes to install smoke alarms outside of each sleeping room; they must be located within 15 feet of the entrance to the room. (Newer buildings must also have one within each sleeping room.) Smoke alarms are also required in basements."

For New Yorkers in need of fire alarms, the Red Cross provides and installs smoke detectors free of charge through its Sound the Alarm initiative. Call (877) 733-2767 and select option 5 in the menu.

“Nighttime fires are the ones we see with elder fatalities, because you’re disoriented, also because many times you could have medication that might induce more sedation than usual.” Chief Jim Manning, battalion commander of the FDNY 10th Battalion