New Jersey lawyer focusing on special education law and employment law


Visual Safety Alarms in Apartment Units

Listen:  Can you hear the goldfish swim in the water?

Caption: A headset is placed over a fishbowl while a lone goldfish swims around.

Listen:  Can you hear the mosquito ringtone?

The point I am trying to make is that not everyone has good hearing and some people are unable to hear anything at all. Most of  us who fall under this category rely on sight. The deaf and profoundly hard of hearing are visual people who often depend on their eyes to understand and interact with the world.

In 2005, a married deaf couple with four hearing children slept inside their apartment in Texas. A fire that started from a faulty power strip began roaring and smoke filled the apartment. The fire alarms rang, but the deaf couple could not hear it. The alarms were not even loud enough to wake up the children. In the end, only the husband and two children survived.  To read more about this tragic, see this news report.

If a visual fire alarm had been installed in the apartment, the chances of entire family surviving the fire would have been much greater.

The photograph below depicts a visual fire alarm. When smoke is detected, the alarm not only rings an audible alarm, but the lights flash on and off intermittently.

Caption: Photo of a visual fire alarm.

The Department of Justice Americans with Disabilities Act Title III Regulation requires visual fire alarms in many places of public accommodation, such as schools, hospitals, shopping malls, and so forth. (See also the ADAAG Technical Bulletin.) While federal law may require installation of visual fire alarms inside the common areas of apartment buildings, landlords and apartment managers may not be required to install them inside the apartment units where tenants sleep. However, local and state government can pass laws that require stricter building code requiring installation of visual fire alarms inside apartment units.

In the case of the husband who lost his wife and two children in Texas, the city had strict building codes requiring installation of visual fire alarms in the apartment unit. The apartment manager had not followed city code. Consequently, a multi-million dollar verdict was awarded against the apartment company. For a follow-up to this story, see this blog post.

It is important for apartment managers and landlords to be aware of all building code and keep up with the changes. This means checking and complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act, state law, city law, and town building code on a regular basis.

It is equally important that tenants with disabilities be aware of their rights. Tenants who believe that the landlord or apartment manager is not complying with the law should address their concerns with the landlord or consult an attorney.

To date, only a handful of jurisdictions require visual safety alarms inside apartment units. It is hoped that in the not-too-distant future, state and local governments across the country will adopt more stringent standards and require, among other things, the installation of visual fire alarms in every apartment unit. In the meantime, landlords and apartment managers who want to save lives and lower litigation expenses would do well to take the initiative and investigate the different types of safety equipment that are available for the deaf, blind, and deaf-blind, and evaluate the pros and cons of installing such safety equipment inside the apartment units. It is not expensive to install safety equipment that exceeds the minimum standards set forth in federal or local building code, and the costs pale in comparison to the costs of litigation and the damages associated with life and  limb.

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