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Tedesco Demands Fire Code Changes In State of The County Speech

Written By Steve Janoski

HACKENSACK — Bergen County Executive James J. Tedesco III had a straightforward message for state officials Monday: Change the building codes regarding lightweight wood construction, the use of which has been blamed for two massive residential fires in the last three years, including one in Maplewood this month.

Do it, Tedesco said. And do it now.

“We cannot wait any longer, because people are going to die, and buildings will continue to burn to the ground,” said Tedesco, a 41-year Paramus firefighter. “By simply changing a few words and a few sentences, officials can dramatically improve the safety of all those that will occupy units constructed with lightweight wood — and save lives.”

Tedesco made the remarks to a packed house at 2 Bergen County Plaza during his annual State of the County address, his third since taking office, which the Democratic executive otherwise used to review county efforts to improve education, encourage cultural acceptance, and create a parks master plan. The master plan, still in development, would guide the evolution of the park system through 2040, he said.

He also urged the state to finally fund a long-planned extension of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail into Bergen County. This, he said, would improve commuters’ lives and revitalize municipalities along the proposed route. The estimated $900 million extension of the line that runs from Hoboken to North Bergen would add stops in Ridgefield, Palisades Park and Leonia before ending in Englewood.

Bergen residents are eager to see the same development that has occurred along the Hudson County sections of track, he said.

But the executive saved his most fervent rhetoric for the ongoing fire code issue.

Latest AvalonBay fire raises questions, concerns

Maplewood fire raises call for change to building codes

Tedesco proposed a coding change that would mandate the installation of sprinklers in concealed spaces. This, he said, would have helped suppress the enormous January 2015 apartment building fire at the Avalon at Edgewater. The blaze destroyed a 240-unit building, displacing 1,000 people and leaving about 500 homeless.

He also called for the installation of masonry fire walls that extend to the roof, which would compartmentalize the building and prevent fires from burning through common attics or floors.

Tedesco is not alone in his crusade — there were calls statewide to revise fire codes after the Edgewater disaster. But progress stalled, and despite the introduction of six bills by state legislators from both sides of the aisle, no code changes have been made. None of the committees given the task of overseeing the bills has even given them a hearing.

But the chorus has grown again in the wake of the Feb. 4 Maplewood blaze, which destroyed an under-construction apartment complex being developed by AvalonBay Companies Inc. The same company built the Edgewater complex.

Despite Tedesco's passion for code revisions, it is unclear how much he can do at the county level. The state's building code can be amended through administrative review by the Department of Community Affairs, or changed through the legislative process. Both are well beyond Tedesco's reach.

AvalonBay voluntarily increased fire safety measures after the Edgewater blaze, adding more sprinklers and fire walls to new projects. But Tedesco said government mandates are necessary nonetheless. In the speech he demanded immediate action and said the legislative delay is indicative that something is “terribly wrong.”

“We can’t wait anymore. Thank God we haven’t lost any lives, but time is running out,” he said afterward. “This is very doable, very quickly.”

Tedesco’s biggest cheerleader in his fire code fight might be Michael McPartland, the Democratic mayor of Edgewater, who was three weeks into his first term when an unlicensed maintenance worker accidentally sparked the Avalon fire with a blowtorch.

McPartland called Tedesco’s speech “powerful” and enthusiastically agreed with his proposals.

“They’re not draconian moves that need to be done. It’s very easy, and very economically feasible,” McPartland said. “Jimmy [Tedesco] is going to be on a mission to do it, and I’ll go with him. Trenton, Washington. Wherever.”

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