By Peter Lampen, Vice President + Architect, Douglas Elliman Property Management
Long before Mayor de Blasio signed legislation on August 18 aimed at preventing future outbreaks of Legionnaires’ Disease, the Executive Team at Douglas Elliman Property Management was working closely with our managers to get a clear message out to our property owners and boards: work on prevention NOW.
By taking a proactive stance on this frightening health issue, our intention was to get as much information as possible out to our boards and help them take the necessary steps to ensure that their building cooling towers were inspected, tested, treated, and in full compliance with any new City regulations that might ensue.
The unusual outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that hit the South Bronx in July was the largest on record, killing 12 people and causing illness in 127. While the outbreak was short lived—the first report came on July 10 and no cases have been reported since August 3—the response by both the State and the City has been swift and decisive.
“Over 200 city workers, from NYPD, FDNY, DEP, the Department of Buildings, Department of Health, Health and Hospitals Corporation, and other agencies, have all been working on the ground in the South Bronx to locate each and every building that may have a cooling tower, to inspect, to disinfect within the boundaries of the impact zone,” announced Mayor de Blasio in a press conference on August 10.
Meanwhile, we at DEPM perceived immediately that this was likely to be of great concern to our boards and building residents, who might worry that outbreaks would spread to other areas of the City. In early August we alerted all our property managers, resident managers and supers informing them of the issue and providing some background information along with an immediate action plan and recommendations that they initiate testing and cleaning in their own buildings as soon as possible.
We also requested that they keep our Executive Team informed about which testing companies they were using, what pricing they were encountering and other details so we could provide a reliable vendor list to all our properties.
Swift Response to a Deadly Outbreak
The Mayor’s Emergency Order was issued on August 6 requiring testing to be done in all buildings with cooling towers by the imminent deadline of August 21, a task that caused a great deal of alarm and quickly became a challenging task, as buildings sought out the few companies that are knowledgeable enough to perform the work. Governor Cuomo followed suit, issuing statewide regulations for registration, testing, inspection and certification of all cooling towers.
“This summer’s outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease caused concern in communities across the state, and today we are moving forward to help prevent future outbreaks and keep our neighborhoods safe,” said the governor in August. He also announced the creation of a tip line at 888-769-7243.
Legionnaires’ disease is a form of pneumonia that is typically spread through the mist from contaminated water, emitted into the surrounding air from the tower’s open-to-the-air water circulation process. In the recent cases, the source of the bacteria was determined to be several A/C cooling towers located on the roofs of buildings where the outbreak occurred. Symptoms include fever, coughing, headaches and muscle pain, and the illness is easily treated with antibiotics if it is caught early. Anyone showing symptoms should see a doctor immediately.
“The recent Legionnaires’ outbreak has been an unprecedented challenge requiring an unprecedented response,” said Mayor de Blasio at a press conference announcing the new legislation. “But a powerful response is just one piece of the equation. New Yorkers need to be protected from the disease through aggressive preventive action.”
New Legislation Requires Action
The new legislation, created as a joint effort between the Mayor’s office, the Governor’s office and the New York City Council, and signed on August 18, requires the regular inspection and cleaning of all cooling towers. Building owners and managers have 30 days to register their cooling towers, which the City has never tracked. Failure to register and/or follow the regulations can result in fines of up to $10,000 and misdemeanor charges of up to $25,000. Cooling towers can be registered online at on.nyc.gov/1K5WbSd.
DEPM President Jim O’Connor has spearheaded our efforts to contact our property managers and building staff as soon as this deadly outbreak was reported. “We began immediately researching strategies, formulating plans and preparing so our staff and our buildings would be ready when final legislation and regulations were issued,” he said. “Now that those government initiatives are in place, we are ready to move forward with full compliance for all the properties under our management. Our number one priority is to protect the health and safety of all residents of our buildings.”
Under new law, all cooling towers must be registered, inspected, tested and cleaned. Failure to do so can result in substantial fines.