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When you buy a home, the last thing you want to think about is what might happen in a worst-case scenario. But as twenty-first century New Yorkers know, disasters can and do happen. From the 9/11 attacks that displaced thousands of Lower Manhattan residents to the flooding caused by Superstorm Sandy to the air quality emergency earlier this summer, not to mention a global pandemic, New Yorkers have faced multiple crises over the past few years. This article offers advice on how to protect yourself and your property from a disaster.

Preventing Fires and What to do in a High-Rise Fire

The city reports over 2,000 structural fires a year, and 2022 got off to a tragic start with New York’s deadliest blaze in decades: On January 9, 17 people, eight children among them, died in a fire in a Bronx high-rise. A malfunctioning space heater set off the fire, but faulty self-closing doors stayed open, filled the corridors with smoke, and led to the deaths by smoke inhalation. If you should find yourself in a high-rise fire, experts recommend the following strategies:

  • Unless your apartment is actively threatened by the fire, shelter in place
  • Keep your door closed - this cuts off the air supply and limits the oxygen available for combustion
  • Put wet towels under the door and around the vents to keep smoke from getting in
  • Do NOT open your door if your doorknob is hot
  • If your apartment is actively threatened by fire, close your door behind you when you leave
  • Crawl to the door to avoid smoke
  • Do NOT use the elevator
  • Do NOT go up to the roof, break a window, or try to jump out

While entire properties are sometimes lost to fire, the real problems are smoke and or water damage in most cases. Fortunately, there are several concrete things one can do to mitigate the risk of residential fires.

• Install smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms and ensure the batteries are working (check your alarms at least twice a year).

• While it may seem counter-intuitive, locate your smoke alarms outside the kitchen; alarms are easily triggered by minor cooking mishaps (e.g., burnt toast) in small kitchens, and this can lead people to de-activate their alarms. Consider locating your alarm or alarms in the bedroom instead.

• In addition to checking on the smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, check to make sure self-closing doors do indeed close by themselves. If they don't, call building management to report the problem.

• Don’t leave your stove on unattended (e.g., when cooking, avoid leaving your apartment, even to take out the trash or run across the street to buy a missing ingredient).

• Keep potholders and towels away from cooking areas, and avoid wearing loose-fitting sleeves when cooking.

• If you smoke, don’t smoke inside (notably, although smoke-free buildings are increasingly common and fewer people smoke now than in the past, smoking remains the number one cause of residential fires).

• If you burn candles or incense, do not leave these items unattended, and keep them away from curtains and other flammable materials.

• If you have an in-unit washer/dryer, keep the lint filter clean.

• Keep windows and doors clear of heavy furniture.

• Avoid the use of space heaters.

• Avoid using extension cords for large appliances (e.g., an air conditioner or refrigerator).

• Have a portable fire extinguisher on hand to put out small fires if they do occur.

Preventing Gas Leaks and Explosions

In 2015, a gas explosion in the East Village leveled half a block of buildings and resulted in the death of two people and the injury of 13 others. The cause was greed and negligence. In this case, the owner of one building had illegally tapped into a gas line. Since the explosion, concerns about gas explosions have increased and so have local efforts to regulate how gas is supplied to residential buildings. Specifically, the City dictates that all work on gas lines be carried out by “a licensed master plumber, a person with a gas work qualification or a person with a limited gas work qualification,” that any work done is subject to a final inspection by the Department of Buildings, and that tenants be updated on any leaks or suspected leaks to a building’s gas lines.

Although the onus is largely on building owners, not tenants, there are still some precautions that unit owners and tenants can take to reduce the risk of gas explosions and leaks in their homes:

• Install a gas detector and ensure it is working; if it is battery operated, check the batteries at least twice a year.

• Make certain all your burners are turned completely whenever you finish cooking or leave your home.

• Ensure your pilot light is always on.

• Don’t DIY when it comes to gas repairs! If you need to fix a gas appliance, call a professional.

• Regularly check the connector that brings gas to your appliances to ensure it isn’t cracked.

• Store flammable cleaning products and paints away from your gas appliances.

Preventing Floods

There are two types of flood threats—external (a flood caused by a hurricane or broken water main) and internal (a flood caused by something that goes wrong in your building). While you may not be able to prevent external floods, if you’re a homeowner, there are some ways to mitigate the potential damage (for more information, read New York City’s Homeowners Guide to Rain Event Preparedness). Fortunately, on the internal side, most flooding threats can be reduced or eliminated with a bit of common sense:

• Avoid overfilling your bathtub and don’t leave tubs unattended while being filled.

• If you have a washer or dishwasher, ensure they are properly installed (hire a professional to do the installation).

• Replace old and leaky toilets.

• Check your ceilings for stains and mold; if you see something suspicious, report it to your superintendent (it is likely a sign of a roof leak or, if you’re on a lower floor, a broken pipe or problem originating in a neighbor’s unit).

Preventing Infestations

Even in the most pristine buildings, infestations of bugs and vermin are commonplace. As a property owner, your first line of defense is your own vigilance and common sense. Among other steps, be certain to:

• Ensure your food is properly stored and always use bug-proof food storage containers. Storing food in bug-proof containers is one way to avoid attracting cockroaches and other pantry pests. Also, if you purchase a contaminated product (e.g., a bag of rice or flour with bugs or larvae) the infestation will be contained to just one bin.

• Seal all cracks under your sinks and in and around your cupboards and baseboards.

• Remove garbage from your unit on a regular basis (ideally, twice a day).

• Avoid bringing items found on the street (e.g., an antique table or chair) into your unit, even if you come across a great find. Abandoned furniture is frequently a source of cockroaches and bedbugs.

• Place cockroach traps in your cupboards and under your kitchen and bathroom sinks; check the traps regularly for signs of an infestation.

• Be proactive—if you suspect an infestation, contact your superintendent (most buildings already have a regular contaminator who visits bi-weekly or monthly).

Preventing the Indoor Spread of Viruses

Between a recent Covid wave and the forthcoming flu season, preventing the spread of viruses and diseases indoors is on many people’s minds. As the majority of 2020 shows, in most cases, staying at home is an effective way to avoid the spread of a virus, including SARS-related viruses such as Covid-19. Still, there is growing evidence of airborne transmission, especially in buildings with poor ventilation and filtration systems.

Ideally, we would all live in buildings with filters that hold a MERV rating of 13 or higher (these filters, generally found in hospitals, can help capture up to 80 percent of viral particles). Even if you live in a building that has not upgraded its filtration system, there are a few preventative measures in your control:

• If you live in a high rise or other multi-unit building, keep your windows open at least a crack year-round.

• Keep humidity levels consistent—there is some evidence that viruses survive longer in low humidity environments.

• Also, beyond paying attention to the quality of air in your apartment, continue to regularly sanitize surfaces, especially door handles.

Preventing ill effects of pollution

In June 2023, New York experienced the worst air quality day on record and the worst air quality in the world when smoke from wildfires in Canada drifted to North America. The hazy skies were most evident outside, but bad air leaked into some buildings to lead to physical symptoms like itchy eyes and respiratory distress. The climate crisis exacerbated both the fires and the effects of El Nino that kept the smoke lingering in New York, and it is all too unlikely that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Just as with the spread of viruses, filters with a MERV rating of 13 or higher can capture particles to improve the air quality in a building. A number of LEED-certified and Passive House buildings have made these filters an integral part of their infrastructure, and older buildings have started to add them. But if your building doesn’t have one of these, there are some steps you can take to manage the air quality in your apartment, starting by keeping the windows closed and buying one or more air filters for your home. Once the windows are shut and the air filters are running, avoid activities like vacuuming or lighting candles or incense.

You may not be able to entirely protect your unit from fires, floods, and other types of disasters. But with the right foresight, common sense, and safety equipment, many potential threats to your property and your health can be mitigated.

Additional Info About the Building

Contributing Writer Cait Etherington Cait Etherington has over twenty years of experience working as a journalist and communications consultant. Her articles and reviews have been published in newspapers and magazines across the United States and internationally. An experienced financial writer, Cait is committed to exposing the human side of stories about contemporary business, banking and workplace relations. She also enjoys writing about trends, lifestyles and real estate in New York City where she lives with her family in a cozy apartment on the twentieth floor of a Manhattan high rise.