Federal officials are investigating a devastating fire in the Bronx that city officials say was caused by a malfunctioning electric heater in an apartment bedroom.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission on Monday opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Sunday’s fire that killed 17 people, including to determine whether the heater was defective, said Patty Davis, a spokesperson for the commission. . “We plan to be on site today,” Ms. Davis said.
The commission, which oversees the safety of consumer products, including portable heaters, has the power to work with businesses to recall unsafe products products and can fine companies if they break laws, including failing to report hazards to the agency.
Portable heaters are not a major cause of residential fires nationwide, according to fire safety experts who said cooking and electrical system problems, for example, were the most common culprits.
Still, portable heaters have been linked to about 1,700 residential fires a year, resulting in about 80 deaths and 160 injuries, according to a 2021 commission report.
In New York City, a 2007 fire that killed 10 people in a Malian immigrant community in the Bronx was started by the frayed cord of a radiator.
Glenn Corbett, associate professor of fire safety and public management at John Jay College, said space heaters typically start fires when they are malfunctioning. This could be due to overheating as they have been left on for too long, and older models may not have new safety features such as automatic shutdown.
Firefighters said the heater that led to the Bronx blaze may have been on for several days. Investigators did not disclose any details about the radiator, such as the model and its age, or explain how it could have started the fire. Firefighters said Monday it was still under investigation.
Mr Corbett said space heaters that run for long periods of time can have components, including plastic parts and cables, that can fail and ignite. The heater then catches fire but generally does not explode.
Heaters also cause fires when placed too close to combustible materials such as bedding, which then come into contact with the coils or exposed heating elements of a heater, causing a fire, Mr. Corbett.
Heaters plugged into overloaded extension cords can also ignite because heaters consume a significant amount of electrical current, he said.
“They very often have disastrous results because they are an important source of energy to start a fire,” Corbett said.
Many radiator manufacturers have made safety improvements in recent years, including automatic shut-off devices and built-in thermostats that warn when a unit overheats, said Prabodh Panindre, senior researcher and faculty member of the Tandon School of New York University. Engineering, specializing in fire safety.
There have also been improvements to the design of some heaters so that they automatically turn off if they fall, Mr Panindre said.
But the problem is, many people still rely on outdated heaters with minimal safety features, or don’t know how to use heaters safely, fire experts have said.
“It’s like any piece of equipment: if you use it correctly and follow the directions, it’s safe, but if you don’t, it doesn’t,” Mr. Panindre said.
According to the commission, safety guidelines for using portable heaters include keeping flammable materials such as bedding, curtains, clothing or furniture at least three feet away.
Portable heaters should also be plugged into a wall outlet instead of an extension cord or power strip which can be overloaded and start a fire, and they should be turned off before going to bed, the commission said.
Another safety measure is to designate a three-foot “child-free zone” around a heater, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Some fire safety experts and advocates have said government agencies and businesses should do more to educate the public on how to safely use heaters, including showing advertisements on TV and cellphones.
Mr Corbett added that state and local governments could target public safety campaigns on space heaters in poorer neighborhoods where many residents depend on them.
Many neighborhoods in the Bronx and upper Manhattan have a higher percentage of homes that depend on additional heat sources, according to a New York City housing survey.