Burglar Bars in Multifamily: Crime Protection Measure or Fire Safety Hazard?

‘Burglar bars’ are wrought-iron grates that are affixed to first-floor windows of residential dwellings. We see them all across Los Angeles and occasionally in Beverly Hills. They may provide a sense of security, but when not properly maintained they can rust and fail to swing open when released from inside. In a fire they can trap residents inside. Too often we see aged and rusting burglar bars on multifamily properties that are poorly-maintained and that can be a safety hazard. So we got to wondering…What are the regulations on burglar bars?

What Does the Law Say About Burglar Bars?

First we turned to the Beverly Hills municipal code, but it is largely silent on the topic of burglar bars affixed to multifamily residential dwellings. There is only one circumstance where they are locally regulated: when an apartment building is converted from rentals into a common interest development (like a condominium).

Required egress windows in sleeping rooms shall not be blocked by a security grill or grate that does not have an approved release device in accordance with the requirements of California building code section 310.4 or any successor statute or regulation.” – B.H.M.C. 10–2–709(A)(8)(c)

As for older multifamily properties where we see those aged burglar bars, there is no local regulation at all. And there is no inspection, ever!

Next we turned to the 2022 California Residential Code. The part that regulates burglars bars is Title 24, Part 2.5 section R310 (Emergency Escape and Rescue Openings):

Emergency escape and rescue openings shall be maintained free of any obstructions other than those allowed by this section and shall be operational from the inside of the room without the use of keys, tools or special knowledge. Window opening control devices and fall prevention devices complying with ASTM F2090 shall be permitted for use on windows serving as a required emergency escape and rescue opening and shall be not more than 70 inches (178 cm) above the finished floor. The release mechanism shall be maintained operable at all times.
Such bars, grills, grates or any similar devices shall be equipped with an approved exterior release device for use by the fire department only when required by the authority having jurisdiction.
Where security bars (burglar bars) are installed on emergency egress and rescue windows or doors, on or after July 1, 2000, such devices shall comply with California Building Standards Code, Part 12, Chapter 12-3 and other applicable provisions of this code. — 2022 California Residential Code § R310.1.1

The problem is that few-to-no regulations apply to aging burglar bars. First, few multifamily properties in Beverly Hills are converted into a common-interest developments. Those that are converted do not feature burglar bars. And second, burglar bars are rarely installed anymore and of those already installed most won’t be covered by the year–2000 standards.

To learn more about the year–2000 standards we turned to the Health and Safety Code, Division 12 Article 1, which addresses fire protection and the responsibilities the fire marshal. Section 13114.2 specifically addresses burglar bars:

(a) On or before January 1, 2000, the State Fire Marshal shall adopt regulations and standards to control the quality and installation of burglar bars and safety release mechanisms for emergency escape/rescue windows or doors installed, marketed, distributed, offered for sale, or sold in this state.
(b) On and after July 1, 2000, no person shall install, market, distribute, offer for sale, or sell burglar bars and safety release mechanisms for emergency escape/rescue windows or doors in this state unless the burglar bars and safety release mechanisms have been approved by a testing laboratory recognized by the State Fire Marshal.
(c) As used in this section:
(1) “Burglar bars” means security bars located on the inside or outside of a door or window of a residential dwelling.
(2) “Residential dwelling” means a house, apartment, motel, hotel, or other type of residential dwelling subject to the State Housing Law […] – HSC §13114.2

Practically speaking, most of the installed burglar bars do not conform to contemporary safety codes. They are not generally maintained or tested much less inspected by the fire department or any other agency. In fact there is no systematic multifamily inspection program in Beverly Hills that might flag problem burglar bars. There should be!

Any multifamily occupant that lives behind aging or rusted burglar bars should keep in mind that if the bars don’t swing open easily in a fire, then lives may depend only on smoke alarms, a single fire extinguisher and, hopefully, the quick response time of BHFD. Test those bars periodically!

Why Are Burglar Bars a Problem?

The possibility of a multifamily apartment fire in Beverly Hills is not merely hypothetical; over the past year fire has struck at 220 Lasky, 228 South Doheny and 433 North Palm. There were additional carport fires at 405 Shirley, 401 Spalding and 305 Reeves.

Our older buildings are often flimsy firetraps which last met any building code when they received a certification of occupancy as long as nine decades ago. They don’t have sprinklers or fire-proof doors or fire-resistant cladding or any of the other contemporary fire-protection standards that tenants in new buildings can take for granted.

Not infrequently we tour multifamily buildings and report to the fire department safety issues like flammable materials that are stored near the furnace or water heater; problems with aging electrical systems; outdated or inoperable smoke detectors, and much more. One such case is 126 North Almont which, due to neglect, illustrated many of those problems.

Case Study in Fire Hazard: 126 North Almont

Burglar bars first came to our attention as a fire hazard when we saw rusted bars affixed to the first floor of 126 North Almont. That was in 2019 and we promptly reported the problem to the fire department along with a variety of habitability issues that we reported to code enforcement. The question we put to the fire department: would those bars open in a fire?126 North Almont rusted burglar bars

Apparently BHFD ordered the bars removed because we later heard that the landlord, Payman Toumari, took action. But instead of removing the unsafe aged burglar bars, or replacing them with code-compliant new bars, Toumari his handyman simply saw-away half of the burglar bars and added a new coat of white paint.

Burglar bars at 126 North Almont after a repaint and sawing-off half of the bars.
Burglar bars at 126 North Almont after a repaint and after sawing-away half of the bars.
Burglar bars at 126 North Almont after being sawed-off.
Burglar bars at 126 North Almont

That may have opened up enough space to let an occupant squeeze through in a fire, but of course it both defeated the purpose of the burglar bars and created a new hazard. Now the sawed bars are sharp and jagged that, in a fire, could easily snag or harm an occupant who was fleeing a fire.

So we followed up with another complaint to the fire department. Did those sawed-off bars meet the fire department’s standard for safety? Apparently they did not, because the city has ordered the landlord to remove the burglar bars entirely. That action came five years after the safety hazard was brought to the city’s attention in 2019.

But wait, there’s more. We recently learned that code enforcement has ordered Toumari to replace all of the common-area smoke alarms at 126 North Almont. They were inoperable or beyond their service life.

The Compounded Risk

The United States Fire Administration has found that when smoke alarms are inoperable and burglar bars are unsafe, then the risk of death or injury in the event of a fire is a much greater. According to a special report on burglar bars:

The occupant’s risk from the unsafe burglar bars is compounded greatly where there is no working smoke alarm. With the early warning provided by a working smoke alarm, people have a chance to extinguish an incipient fire or leave through exits. Anecdotal evidence suggest that when there are multiple fatalities due to burglar bar entrapment, there often is not a working smoke alarm. – US Fire Administration TR–138 Burglar-Bars Special Report (2002)

The report also notes that burglar bars can be an impediment to firefighters conducting rescues. “Just as burglar bars keep criminals out, they also keep rescuers out.”

Not coincidentally, the National Fire Incident Reporting System designates two incident codes that are specifically related to firefighting when burglar bars pose a problem at the scene of a fire:

(14) Problem with quick-release burglar or security bar.
(15) Burglar or security bar, intrusion barrier.

Source: National Fire Incident Reporting System Complete Reference Guide (2015).

Moral of the Story: Test Those Burglar Bars Before a Fire!

Fire safety is the responsibility of us occupants in Beverly Hills multifamily rental housing because neither the city, nor the landlord, need to conduct a regular fire safety inspection. BHFD inspects only smoke alarms in common areas yet we continue to learn about smoke alarms that don’t function or are beyond their service life.

You see, we are not only the city’s unpaid code violation spotters; we are also amateur fire marshals who have the responsibility to report fire hazards. And that must include rusted burglar bars. If you see something, say something! If the landlord will not take fast action, then contact the fire department. Refer to our guide: How to Submit Your Complaint to City of Beverly Hills.

Our Take

Burglar bars seem like a relic of the past when crime rates were higher and fear of criminals was higher still. Today they blend into the scenery; even if we notice them they don’t summon thoughts of fire safety or fire hazard. That’s probably because media reports overstate the risk of crime while understating the risk of fire. But fire in Beverly Hills multifamily housing should be a real concern.

Perhaps burglar bars still have a role to play in fighting crime. Indeed we saw recently that burglar bars were installed at a multifamily building on Reeves which never before had any bars. (It is pictured at the top of the post.) New burglar bars will meet all applicable safety standards.

Much more common, though, are the burglar bars that just hang on despite having outlived their usefulness. It is up to the occupants who live behind those bars to ensure that they work properly. The more negligent is the landlord, the more responsibility a tenant must take to protect themselves.

458 S Roxbury burglar bars
Burglar bars at 458 South Roxbury, owned by landlord Stephen Copen. Given the state of repair of Copen’s properties, it would be prudent for any Copen tenant living behind burglar bars to make sure those bars will open in the event of fire!

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