The Fire Department and its firefighter unions extinguished a behind-the-scenes effort to water down legislation promoting fire safety on movie sets, according to the Uniformed Firefighters Association.
The package of bills, set to be voted on next week, has been championed by Eileen Davidson, the widow of Firefighter Michael R. Davidson, 37, who died from injuries he sustained at a five-alarm fire in March 2018 in a former Harlem jazz club that his engine company did not know had been converted into a movie set.
The brownstone was being used as the set for "Motherless Brooklyn," which starred Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe and Edward Norton, who was also the film's director.
Drama Away From Set
At a hastily called 5 p.m. Feb. 16 press conference, UFA officials thanked City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Members Joe Borelli and Robert Cornegy for sponsoring the legislation.
Talk of some film-industry-friendly tweaking of the bills spurred a Feb. 14 letter from Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro to Mr. Johnson raising concerns that the revisions would "weaken" the legislation.
A March 2019 FDNY report on the fatal fire concluded that in addition to firefighters being unaware of the alterations to the building, the set itself was made of highly flammable materials that once ablaze produced a thick, toxic smoke.
The 117-page report recounted how Firefighters encountered fake walls that "created voids" that "initially concealed fire. The first units were unaware that these false walls were not intrinsic to the fire building," which hobbled their response and caused conditions to deteriorate so rapidly that Firefighter Davidson became separated from his colleagues.
Firefighters who tried to ventilate the building found that what appeared from outside to be windows were covered over by the movie set, and what appeared inside to be windows were just part of the set design.
Mr. Davidson, a father of four, died of smoke inhalation after his air tank ran out of air. The FDNY ruled the initial cause of the blaze was a malfunctioning boiler, which had been previously cited by the Department of Buildings.
"So, what this does is it outlines violations and different permits that need to be closed out" before a site can be used as a movie set, UFA Vice President Robert Eustace said of the package of bills. "You can rent out buildings--but the buildings might have violations that still need to be closed out. The way it works is, we can issue a violation and you'll have a certain amount of time to correct it...but if you are filming a movie...and let's say the sprinkler isn't working, this would require the sprinkler be working before you add more to the fire load."
The legislation also requires that movie sets have a safety manager and fire-watch personnel who will track any alterations to the worksite and look out for potential fire violations.
"It's a relief—it's been a long time," Eileen Davidson told reporters. "A lot went into this behind the scenes, obviously, and we are very thankful that it's going to go through the way it deserves to be seen through."
Widow 'Led the Charge'
Mr. Eustace credited her with "leading the charge all the way. It would not be an overstatement to say this would not have happened without her."
"I am not a firefighter, but my husband talked about the job. And if you ask me if this would have happened if the engine company knew what they were walking into, absolutely not," Ms. Davidson said. "They had no idea they were walking into a death trap. I don't say that lightly, but it was."
The legislation's boosters worked on the changes for close to three years.
"This is a bill that will hold movie sets liable to the same standards we would put on any city landlord who makes temporary alterations to a building," Council Member Borelli, chair of the Committee on Fire and Emergency Services, said in a phone interview. "And if someone died in a tenement because of a landlord that put up temporary partitions, they might face arrest, but because it's the movie industry they were just allowed for many years."
After letter from Commissioner Nigro surfaced, the UFA decided to take the case for preserving the bill's changes directly to the public. The letter noted that while the film industry had input along with top FDNY officials and the Council on the legislation, "it has come to my attention that the film industry was able to insert language at the 11th hour that would weaken the Fire Department's ability to implement safety measures. I'm writing today to ask that you allow the legislation to move forward without this new language that would undercut the safety measures that these bills are intended to provide."
"The City Council values the input and perspective of Commissioner Nigro and the FDNY," a spokesperson for Mr. Johnson said in a statement. "There was never any intention to change the bill in any way that would jeopardize safety."
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