On July 22, 1975, in Boston, 19-year-old Diana Bryant and her 2-year-old goddaughter Tiare Jones fled a blaze in a Marlborough Street building by climbing onto the fire escape. It collapsed before firefighters could reach them. Bryant died, but the child, who landed on her, survived. A photojournalist snapped chilling photos of the pair falling through the air and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
The images are so powerful that a law requiring the inspection, maintenance, and certification of all fire escapes in Massachusetts was enacted soon after the accident. A state amendment to the International Building Code stipulates that fire escapes “must be examined and/or tested, and certified for structural adequacy and safety every five years by a registered design professional or others acceptable” to the city or town’s building officials.
According to a records request made to the city’s Inspectional Services Department, there are 9,637 fire escapes in Boston, but from 2016 to 2020, the city issued only 3,267 “affidavits” of completed inspection. The number of fire escapes may be even higher. And that’s just Boston. There are many more fire escapes in cities across the Commonwealth.
The City of Boston refused to comment on the record for this story.
These numbers should be a concern for condo and apartment dwellers, but buyers also should take heed. Because of the fatal collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo complex in Surfside, Fla., in June 2021, government-sponsored mortgage buyers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have “temporarily” changed their requirements for loan approval — changes that could mean delayed closings and higher interest rates. Attached condos in a building that has at least five units and “significant deferred maintenance” or violations “are not eligible for purchase,” a letter Fannie Mae sent to lenders in October states.
A Freddie Mac spokesperson said properties that are not compliant with a state-mandated inspection or certification have not been eligible for purchase by the agency for years and that the new guidance only underscores that ineligibility. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae own roughly half of the mortgages in the United States at any given time, and they generally keep mortgage interest rates lower than the market rate.
On condominium loans, the spokesman said, the agencies rely on lenders to find out from the condominium association whether or not the building is in compliance with all applicable laws.
Before the Surfside collapse, lenders were asking whether there were any building violations, said Chris Malloy, a lawyer and a principal and founding member of Moriarty, Troyer & Malloy in Boston. But “now you have to show the lenders proof that you’ve had the fire escape inspected.”
Phil Cucchi of BeaconLight Home Inspection has been an inspector in Greater Boston for about a decade and a Newton firefighter for twice that. Lieutenant Cucchi said that his inspection team of 11 — eight of whom are firefighters — have seen their fair share of fire escapes and that most of them need work.
“In general, most fire escapes are not in very good condition,” he said. “It’s due to the age of many of these buildings and the age of the fire escapes and just being in New England weather. Over time, these fire escapes just break down. They rust. They corrode. Then, instead of being a benefit, it becomes a hazard.”
Granted, some properties that have fire suppression systems legally may not need a fire escape, but if a building does have one, according to the state, the onus is on property owners to have them inspected.
“Property owners have a responsibility to ensure that fire escapes and other means of egress are inspected and maintained so they can be used safely in an emergency, and residents should always keep them free from any obstruction,” Jake Wark, public information officer at the state Department of Fire Services, wrote in an e-mail. “Every second counts when a fire breaks out, so we expect emergency routes like doorways, stairways, windows, and fire escapes to comply with Massachusetts’ building and life safety codes.”
Doug Quattrochi, executive director of MassLandlords, a nonprofit for owners and managers, confirmed that many landlords are unaware of the five-year inspection requirement.
“It’s so unheard of it practically ranks as trivia,” Quattrochi said.
Malloy said many condo homeowners associations and building management companies don’t know about the inspection requirement either, which could be financially ruinous.
“If there is a fire escape that is out of compliance with the code or otherwise defective and there is a loss that stems from that, the condominium association itself is the one that would be the subject of a suit for negligence,” Malloy said.
Scott Holeman, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute, said individual claims and policies vary, but noncompliance with the certification requirement alone wouldn’t automatically void a claim.
Malloy agrees that the insurance company likely will pay the judgment — but only up to the liability limit, leaving the homeowners association to make up the difference.
“Let’s say you have a ten-unit condominium building with a million-dollar general liability policy,” he said. “If there was a ten-million-dollar judgment against the building, one million dollars would be covered by insurance, and the remaining nine million dollars is going to be spread among the ten unit owners.”
Malloy said smaller condominium associations tend to be more cost-conscious, and many wrongly assume they don’t need as much master insurance coverage as a high-rise. “The reality is if someone is hurt or killed in a three-unit condo building or at the Ritz, it’s the same exposure,” he said.
Condominium owners who live in professionally managed buildings may think their property manager is on top of fire escape inspections and would be held responsible for neglect, but that’s not a safe assumption, Molloy said.
“Even in a professionally managed condominium, almost every management contract out there has language in it that says the manager is not required to be on notice with all codes and ordinances, regulations, laws, et cetera,” he said. “In fact, most contracts say the association has to indemnify the building manager.”
Managers are not expected to know about every code and ordinance, he explained, but they may be held accountable if they knew about a problem and did not report it or act on it.
Francisco “Cisco” Meneses, founder of the National Fire Escape Association, a fire escape design and inspection firm, and a fire escape repair and replacement company, has been an expert witness in lawsuits over fire escape injuries.
“Your fire escape is the parachute that nobody thinks they’re ever going to need to use,” Meneses said. “No occupant or firefighter has ever been killed because of a failure in a certified, load-tested fire escape in the U.S. — ever.”
Jim Morrison can be reached at JamesAndrewMorrison@gmail.com. Subscribe to the Globe’s free real estate newsletter — our weekly digest on buying, selling, and design — at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp. Follow us on Twitter @GlobeHomes.