When There's Smoke. . .
September 1, 2000
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What causes fires? Well, to judge by an article that appears on the front page of New York editions of this morning's New York Times, the answer is "development."
What prevents fires? Well, to judge by the same article in this morning's Times, the answer is, "more laws."
It's bizarre how the Times gets from a fire in Edgewater, N.J. to anxiety about development. It seems to be just buying wholesale the complaints of some city councilmen and residents, who are quoted making statements such as "We have one main road and three paid firemen. This development is not only jeopardizing our quality of life, but our safety, too," and "It feels like the almighty dollar has taken over this town." (What currency would the Times prefer, rubles?) As the Times puts it, the fire is essentially proof that "development is outstripping the ability of local governments to regulate it."
The Times article, which runs under the headline "Fire Raises Doubts About River Town's Boom" makes much of a variance that was granted to the building that burned in Edgewater that allowed it to be built six feet from the sidewalk rather than 30 feet. It also reports that Edgewater is "asking that all new buildings employ round-the-clock employees trained to deal with fires."
But if anyone at the Times knew anything about firefighting and New Jersey, they'd realize that lack of regulation and lack of resources aren't the problem.
An article in the August 13 edition of the Bergen County, N.J. newspaper The Record reported that, when it comes to fire-safety inspections, "New Jersey's requirements are perhaps the most stringent in the nation, said Glenn Corbett, a Waldwick resident who is a professor of fire science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. 'I can't think of another state that does the amount of inspections that we do,' he said. Fire officials say the inspections, combined with education campaigns about fire safety, helped lower the state's fire fatality rate to 10.9 per 1 million people in 1996 -- the 14th-lowest rate in the United States."
An article in the August 14 Record reported that Edgewater, a town with only 523 properties requiring inspections, employed a full-time fire prevention inspector and three part-time assistant inspectors.
A February 22, 1998 dispatch by Matthew Mosk, also in the Record, reported that the area hardly has a shortage of firefighting equipment. "Bergen County -- with one tenth the population of New York City -- owns 50 more trucks than the entire five-borough fire department," Mr. Mosk reported, noting that it is one reason that New Jersey has the nation's highest property taxes.
And if the Times's claim is correct, and development causes fire fatalities, then why have fire deaths fallen nationwide from 7,400 in 1977 to 4,000 in 1998, as the Record reported? There was certainly plenty of development in America from 1977 to 1998.
The Times makes much of the fact that there are three paid firemen in Edgewater, but the truth is, small towns have long relied successfully on volunteers and mutual aid from neighboring fire departments to fight big blazes.
What's going on here is that opponents of development in Edgewater are using the fire to press their case. The Times fell for it, big time, even though there doesn't seem to be much evidence to back it up. And of course, there is not a single developer -- not even a single proponent of development -- quoted in the Times's front-page article.
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