Nearly 106 years to the day, the shadow cast by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire’s smoke cloud still looms. If there is a silver lining to be found, it is in the fire’s role as catalyst to code establishment and enforcement reform.
As we approach the anniversary of the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, GovPilot would like to remind readers of the critical importance of the Code Enforcement department. We look at how far this department has come and the great work that lies ahead, made possible by our comprehensive Code Enforcement software module.
Tragedy on the Lower East Side
The afternoon of March 25, 1911 was a typical one on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Children played in the street as adults browsed the neighborhoods’ various push carts, enjoying a warm spring Saturday. High above them in the top three floors of the 10 story Asch building, 450 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory employees—most of them young immigrant women—went about business as usual, sewing “shirtwaist” style blouses for more affluent women to purchase.
At 4:45 PM, the quiet peace of a spring afternoon on the Lower East Side was interrupted by the smell of smoke and the thud of a body hitting the stone sidewalk.
According to professional reporter, William Gunn Shepherd, who happened to be in the area at the time, the sickening thud was followed by another, then another.
“I looked up—saw that there were scores of girls at the windows. The flames from the floor below were beating in their faces. Somehow I knew that they, too, must come down.”
In less than a half an hour, a fire, most likely ignited by a lit cigarette in a bin of rags at one of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory’s eighth floor offices, had spread through the ninth floor and up to the tenth floor—leaving 146 dead and 71 injured in its wake.
Call for Reform
The tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was compounded by its utter avoidability. An investigation revealed a number of egregious structural and operational flaws that turned the Asch building into a literal death trap.
For starters, no audible alarm existed to notify employees on the 9th floor of the fire. Even if all workers had known of the fire, the building and the factory owners’ practices made it impossible for everyone to safely escape.
Though the Asch building contained four elevators with access to the factory floors,only one was fully operational. The sole functioning elevator was barely accessible. Workers had to file down a long, narrow corridor in order to reach it.
Though the Asch building featured two stairways down to the street, the Washington Square exit had been locked from the outside to prevent employee theft. The other only opened inward.
Finally, the building’s fire escape failed the workers.It was so tiny that it would have taken hours for all on shift to use it, even in the best of circumstances. Even the New York Fire Department was unprepared for a worst case scenario at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. When engines arrived at the scene, ladders only reached the building’s sixth floor.
Conditions like those at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were shamefully common at the time.Manufacturing relied on the labor of largely female immigrants—a marginalized demographic, especially in 1911.The city was filled with factories aptly dubbed, “sweatshops”, in which workers toiled long hours in unsafe, unsanitary and inhumane environments.Employee protection regulations, such as the 1892 New York State Factory Act, went largely ignored.
In the days following the conflagration, Fire Chief, Edward Croker, remarked, “I have been advocating and agitating that fire escapes be put on buildings just such as this. This large loss of life is due to this neglect.”
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire opened the public’s eyes to this seedy segment of industry.As workers' rights advocate and fire witness, Frances Perkins, explained, “There was a stricken conscience of public guilt and we all felt that we had been wrong, that something was wrong with that building which we had accepted or the tragedy never would have happened. Moved by this sense of stricken guilt, we banded ourselves together to find a way by law to prevent this kind of disaster.”
In the aftermath of the fire, worker’s unions and their allies pushed for workplace reform. New safety laws calling for the use of automatic sprinklers, fire drills and marked, easily opened emergency exit doors were established and enforced.
Code Enforcement Today and Tomorrow
Reverberations of the post-Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire labor reform movement are felt to this day. Virtually all United States counties and municipalities employ code enforcement agents, who inspect and assess the safety of various working and living conditions. GovPilot Code Enforcement software is built to anticipate and accommodate the unique demands of this critical department.
Our Code Enforcement software consists of three cutting-edge features that assist officials in upholding necessary safety standards.Custom automated workflows carry assignments and status updates through the department to ensure that all cases are accounted for and closed in a timely manner.
GovPilot understands that a large portion of a code enforcement agent’s job is done onsite. Our software is compatible with tablets and smartphones so that workers can make the most of their time in the field. They can enter data on location and access it via desktop upon their return to the office.
GovPilot is integrated with geographic information system (GIS) technology. Code enforcement agents can update an interactive, public-facing map to inform developers, homeowners and entrepreneurs of life-saving rules and regulations.
Thankfully, working conditions have come a long way since 1911, but there is still work to be done. GovPilot software is built to support code enforcement as it evolves to ensure that workers everywhere are safe.