Updated electrical code 

can prevent fatal fires

April 9, 2023 

By Arthur H. Gunther III

     Remember your mom’s warning not to stick paper clips in electrical outlets? Saved lives. Today it seems some, hopefully few, in government in effect tell kids and adults to plug anything into a circuit. Not by intent but by inadequate electrical code requirement/inspection. 

     Elected and appointed officials who write fire and building codes that are insufficient and/or are not enforced are to blame. So is pressure on these officials from landlords or other special interests not to inspect or to look with half-closed eyes. If so, intolerable. 

     In Spring Valley, N.Y., my former third-generation village, five people, including two children, perished in a March 4, 2023, fire in a 1910 single-family home of just 1,500 square feet converted to house 18 people. The quick-moving blaze apparently began with an electrical malfunction.

     That home was overcrowded, wrong in the first place. Should be outlawed. According to news reports, the house had been “inspected,” with violations found and supposedly rectified. Did that include  electrical circuits? Any 1910 wiring still in use? Un-grounded circuits? Overloaded circuits? Sufficient circuits for 18 people?

    My assumption is that if this home had been required to update fully wiring and service to the present National Electrical Code, it would have had “Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter” protection that would have sensed a short, even overload before sparks appeared and lit a fire. That can virtually eliminate a leading cause of fires fatal and not in American homes. 

     AFCI circuits are now required in New York State, according to the Electrical Underwriters of New York. If  the NEC code is followed, arc fault is necessary in all living areas in new construction and remodeling. Surely the house that claimed lives in Spring Valley was “remodeled” one way or another to house 18 people. Arc fault should have been a must, at least in the changed area.

     If not “remodeled,” it was still commonsense that the electrical load from 18 people would be problematic for shorts and overload, therefore fire.

      Yes, landlords would have to pay for arc fault and also ground fault, but so what? The changes save lives, those of tenants and responders who tackle the fires. And such protection reduces housing insurance, if the landlords actually carry that. Renters already pay obscene rents in substandard housing, so use some of that income to upgrade electrically.

     It is a no-brainer to follow the NEC code. Any home changing out electric service should upgrade for peace of mind. That includes us all. 

     Politicians and elected/appointed government officials don’t have to hem and haw over this. Just require all landlords to follow the code if they have remodeled  property, even to the slightest extent. Demand  arc- and ground-fault protection, which can be had with the newer combination circuit breakers. Add punch to the NEC code with local regulations requiring full house protection in any rental, not just in “remodeling.”

     To do nothing is to have government tell kids and adults to plug in a toaster or room heater or perhaps anything, go to sleep and never wake up.

     Can officials sleep with that?

     The writer is a retired newspaperman and editorialist who penned numerous editorials on fire safety.