Space heaters, which sell for less than $50 in most...

Space heaters, which sell for less than $50 in most major hardware stores, account for 44% of all home heating equipment fires, according to the National Fire Protection Agency. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/summerphotos

Electric space heaters — the type that malfunctioned in the Bronx last weekend, killing 17 people, including eight children — can be extremely dangerous when faulty or not operated carefully, Long Island fire safety officials said Tuesday.

Sunday's blaze in a 19-story, 120-unit apartment building in the Tremont section of the Bronx was New York's deadliest fire in nearly 32 years.

While the fire was sparked by a malfunctioning space heater in the bedroom of a duplex unit, the death toll grew because the door to that apartment and a stairway door on the 15th floor failed to close automatically, as required by law, allowing smoke to spread rapidly throughout the building, said FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro.

'It could have happened anywhere'

Long Island fire safety officials said a similar tragedy could occur in any community if proper precautions are not taken.

"What happened in the Bronx could happen anywhere," said Scott Kemins, who doubles as deputy fire commissioner and building commissioner in the City of Long Beach, which has among the region's most high-rise apartment buildings. "It was an unfortunate accident. Things went wrong that shouldn't have gone wrong. But it could have happened anywhere."

Michael Uttaro, Nassau's chief fire marshal, said roughly a dozen fires each year in the county are caused by space heaters, most often when they're plugged into a power strip or kept too close to flammable items.

Space heaters, which sell for less than $50 in most major hardware stores, account for 44% of all home heating equipment fires and for the majority of injuries and deaths in home fires caused by heating equipment, according to the National Fire Protection Agency.

December, January and February are the peak months for heating-related fires, which are the second leading cause of home fire injuries in the United States, and the third leading cause of home fire deaths, the agency said.

"Space heaters are a tool people use to supplement the heating in their home," said Pat Beckley, acting commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services. "They are a little bit more dangerous. People need to be aware of that."

John Murray, chief instructor at the Nassau Fire Education Center, said space heaters can be a "time bomb" when used incorrectly.

He warns against plugging space heaters into an extension cord or power strip; leaving them on overnight or keeping them within 3 feet of combustible items such as curtains, bedding or furniture.

Tips for safely operating a space heater

  • Place space heaters on low, flat surfaces.
  • Keep space heaters at least 3 feet away from flammable items and objects. 
  • Avoid leaving a space heater unattended, especially for long periods of time. 
  • Do not plug space heaters into extension cords or power strips. 
  • Unplug space heaters when not in use.
  • Purchase space heaters with codes listed by Underwriters Laboratories, the leading independent safety testing organization for alternative heating devices.
  • Buy space heaters with a knock-over switch that shuts the device off if it falls over.

Source: Long Island fire safety officials

Newer heaters, he said, have a "knock-over switch" that automatically shuts the device off if they're tipped over.

"These things are a real hazard," Murray said. "People should try not to use them at all. I know they try to supplement either no heat or low heat in a house. But they tend to be very dangerous in the wrong hands."

The electric space heater that sparked the Bronx blaze had been left on for days, a person briefed on the FDNY's investigation said Tuesday.

The victims' deaths were ruled accidental, caused by smoke inhalation, said Julie Bolcer, a spokeswoman for the city's Office of Chief Medical Examiner.

Meanwhile, automatic self-closing doors, which appear to have failed in the Bronx fire, are inspected annually on Long Island, said Joseph Miller, Long Beach's fire commissioner.

Those inspections, he said, generally focus on the common area of multiple-unit dwellings, including stairwells, a key access point during a fire.

LI no stranger to space heater fires

Records show that at least four Long Islanders have died in fires sparked by space heaters since the mid-1970s, including in Freeport, Uniondale, Riverhead and Central Islip. Dozens of others have been injured or left homeless in similar blazes caused by alternative heating devices, according to Newsday records.

On Feb. 18, 1979, during a frigid 8-degree night, Kemins, then 17, and his parents were living in a seven-story, 78-unit apartment complex on Shore Road in Long Beach when a space heater in another unit accidentally set draperies on fire.

Kemins said his parents escaped through a second-story balcony ladder and that none of the 100 building occupants were seriously injured. The building was ultimately reconstructed, but it took two years before all residents could return home.

"I will always remember it," said Kemins, then a junior firefighter who helped with the rescue efforts. "We were lucky enough that no one was killed or injured. Insurance replaces everything and you can go back home. But insurance can't replace the loss of life."

Uttaro wants the Bronx fire to be a "teachable moment" for Long Islanders.

On Wednesday, his office will host a demonstration at the Nassau County Fire Service Academy in Old Bethpage, where officials will show how fast and easy flammable items can burn when they come into contact with a space heater.

"Our hope is if we show people how quickly fire spreads from these units they'll operate them safely," Uttaro said. "And take precautions to make sure it does not happen."

With Michael O'Keeffe and James Carbone

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