A new automatic fire alarm system was being installed when the deadly Hempstead Village apartment fire broke out two weeks ago, but the property owner was sluggish in putting in the new equipment, county fire officials said.
The 78-apartment complex had several previous violations with the Nassau County fire marshal's office and management had been ordered before superstorm Sandy struck on Oct. 29 to install a new fire alarm system, fire officials said last week. The fire marshal approved the plans on Jan. 2 and work began after that.
The installation was still under way when the Feb. 9 fire started at 17 St. Paul's Rd. North, claiming the lives of Guadalupe Ramirez, 37, and her 8-year-old son, Fernando. About 250 residents, most still in their pajamas, were forced out of five adjoining apartment buildings and into snow-covered streets.
"We continuously gave them violations for the fire alarm system," Michael Uttaro, general inspection division supervisor of the fire marshal's office, said about the property owner and manager, Dorchester Llc of Oyster Bay. "They had a Band-Aid system . . . They had been dragging their feet installing the new system," he said.
Before residents were allowed to return to neighboring unaffected buildings, Dorchester Llc had to upgrade the emergency lighting and complete the installation of the new fire alarm system that covers hallways and common areas, Uttaro said. The fire alarm system, automatically or manually activated, is intended to alert the fire department and notify occupants to evacuate, he said.
"We take the safety and welfare of our tenants seriously, and have been and continue to be in compliance with the law," Dorchester officials said in a statement. "At the time of this tragedy we were in the process of upgrading our fire alarm system, on a schedule approved by the authorities, and have in fact completed that work."
Dorchester officials said they provided tenants with a March rent credit for the time they were out of their apartments.
Many displaced residents had complained there were no working fire alarms, accessible fire escapes or fire extinguishers in the 1950-era buildings when flames broke out. The fire, caused by a candle in an apartment, was classified as accidental.
Dorchester also was ordered to install carbon monoxide detectors in all apartments, submit an electrical inspection report of the building complex by April 1, and inspect and repair fire escapes by April 30, Uttaro said.
A "majority" of the complex's apartments were illegally subdivided, Uttaro said.
"In many occasions we found lots of beds," he said. "We gave them an order to take those partitions down."
Dorchester officials in response said, "Any partitions that may have been discovered in apartments would be in express violation of our lease agreements."