Updated at 7:20 p.m. on Aug. 26

When Lorraine Adams sees a triple-decker in Worcester, she remembers the fires.

Adams was 15 when old electric wiring in a three-decker she and her family rented ignited a blaze that completely burned the building. Nobody was injured, but the family lost all of their belongings and had to immediately find somewhere new to live.

Nearly 50 years later in 2021, a fire started in the three-decker Adams owned and lived in with several relatives. The flames trapped Adams’ husband, mom and partially paralyzed brother in the building. Her husband was the only one of the three who escaped, jumping off a balcony on the third floor. But he later died from his burns and the smoke he inhaled during the fire.

The cause of the fire remains unknown. But the flames spread rapidly because, like most other triple-deckers, the century-old house wasn’t built with fire blocking — material that can slow or stop flames — in its walls.

“I pray that [nobody] has to experience anything like that,” Adams said, standing in front of the vacant lot where her home once stood. “If you can avoid living in a [triple-decker], do it.”

Three-deckers have been a common — even iconic — form of housing across New England for more than a century. Originally built to house factory workers, the tall, boxy homes are a main source of affordable housing in Massachusetts cities that used to be major industrial centers like Worcester, Brockton and New Bedford.

But fire officials around the state say three-deckers’ age leaves them vulnerable to fires. As a result, with housing prices soaring across Massachusetts, many lower-income people cannot afford to live anywhere other than triple-deckers with potentially dangerous fire hazards.

Although localities don’t specifically track fires in three-deckers and fatalities from them, fire officials in Worcester, Fall River, Brockton and New Bedford all say a disproportionate majority of their structure fire response involves the buildings.

For example, there are nearly 5,000 three-deckers in Worcester, accounting for about 12% of the city’s total housing stock, according to Worcester property records. And yet, blazes in three-deckers make up about half of the Worcester Fire Department’s overall response to structure fires.

“I would say 100 to 150 fires in three-deckers a year,” Worcester Acting Deputy Fire Chief Adam Roche estimated, based on his nearly 20 years as a firefighter in the city. He added that three Worcester firefighters have died since 1999 — all in three-decker fires. To better prepare for fires in the buildings, the city has a training facility modeled off a triple-decker.

Shadows cast over a residential street lined with three-story apartment buildings.
FILE — Three-deckers have been a common form of housing in Massachusetts for more than a century.
DenisTangneyJr Getty Images/iStockphoto

While some of the fires break out due to human error like improper disposal of cigarette butts, fire officials say several outdated characteristics of three-deckers can start a fire.

Some have antiquated electrical wiring systems called knob-and-tube that are now illegal to install and can cause fires when they get overwhelmed by high usage.

Old heating systems common in triple-deckers can also be fire-starters. Parlor heaters, for example, often sit in living rooms and can cause fires if people inadvertently leave clothes and other items on them. Gas-on-gas stoves, which are designed to serve as both space heaters and cooking stoves, also can leak gas and be prone to malfunctioning because they’re usually more than 50 years old, officials said.

Once a fire’s burning, petroleum-based shingles — known as gasoline shingles — on the exterior of three-deckers act as fuel and burn violently, Roche said.

Many triple-deckers were also constructed before building codes prohibited balloon framing, a design that doesn’t include fire blocking within walls and therefore allows fires to spread uncontrollably from floor to floor.

“There’s no way to predict how a fire is going to travel in a balloon-frame construction building. You see it in front of you, you feel it in front of you, and then it appears someplace else,” Fall River Deputy Fire Chief Ronald Sevigny said. “[Responding to three-decker fires] does get extremely demanding, frustrating.”

A slow process to update ‘scary’ and ‘unsound’ structures

A Worcester fire in May that killed four people demonstrated the deadly consequences of design flaws in three-deckers. Roche, the Worcester deputy fire chief, said the fire at the triple-decker on Gage Street started in the basement before spreading up the entire building through the attic. The extent of the blaze, which benefited from balloon framing as well as gasoline shingles, did not surprise Albert LaValley.

As president of the Worcester construction and property management firm Sustainable Comfort Inc., LaValley renovates three-deckers and sees fire hazards in the buildings regularly. When he bought one of his triple-deckers, he knew it had previously experienced a fire. But once he and his team started gutting the balloon-framed building, they saw evidence of five other fires.

“That’s scary to me,” LaValley said. “It was structurally the most unsound thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

The Worcester Fire Department has a training facility that's modeled off a triple-decker. Firefighters light fires in it and practice search-and-rescue.
Sam Turken GBH News

Current state law makes it illegal to construct a building with balloon framing and knob-and-tube electrical wiring or to install a gas-on-gas stove in a unit. If major renovation work is done to a building, the owner must add fire blocking — if it doesn’t already have it — and replace any existing knob-and-tube wiring.

But localities usually don’t mandate landlords immediately address fire hazards, and city inspectors tend to only enforce modern requirements if landlords have pulled permits for renovation work. LaValley said he often comes across three-deckers in Worcester with updated bathrooms and kitchens yet still lack fire blocking or have old electrical wiring because landlords completed the renovation without a permit.

“We see a lot of sort of absentee landlords come in, buy these buildings, want to put the minimum amount of work in possible,” LaValley said. “Usually that means doing it without a permit.”

Worcester officials said they would like to more regularly enforce the permitting process. But the city doesn’t have enough inspectors to do so.

“We can’t see through every wall. We can’t see everything that’s going on. We’re doing the best we can,” Worcester Commissioner of Inspectional Services Christopher Spencer said.

Doug Quattrochi, executive director of Mass Landlords, said he urges all rental housing owners to always pull permits. But some three-decker owners may not address fire hazards because they don’t know they’re a threat.

Since buying his own triple-decker in Worcester in 2008, Quattrochi has tried to address all of the fire risks in the building, adding fire blocking within walls and replacing old electrical wiring. However, he was unaware that the exterior shingles on his building were flammable until GBH News told him about it during an interview.

“I’m disappointed,” he said in response. “Just when you think you’ve got it taken care of, another thing crops up.”

While Quattrochi plans to remove the shingles, he said other landlords cannot afford to take similar measures to mitigate fire hazards. Installing fire blocking in a unit can cost thousands of dollars and usually requires forcing tenants to vacate the building. Replacing gas-on-gas stoves and parlor heaters with a more modern heating system like a heat pump can also be cost-prohibitive — even with an efficiency-driven rebate from Mass Save.

“I’d have to spend at least $5,000 to put in a [new] system” in one apartment, said Sophie Kozacka, who owns multiple three-deckers in Worcester. “We’re talking quite a bit of money.”

Doug Quattrochi's three-decker is covered with petroleum-based asphalt shingles, known as “gasoline shingles,” which are flammable.
Sam Turken GBH News

More than a fire safety problem

Despite the potential fire hazards, three-deckers are a main source of affordable housing in Worcester and other cities.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Massachusetts has a housing shortage of about 163,000 affordable rental homes. Blair Komar Bates, a housing attorney with Community Legal Aid, said that means many lower-income people have little choice but to live in unsafe three-deckers. If a fire burns through the building, they’re vulnerable to homelessness if they can’t immediately find somewhere else to live.

“Landlords have disproportionate power right now to make tenants live in dangerous conditions,” Komar Bates said. “They can’t afford to move and they’re stuck in substandard housing.”

Daniel Toney said he’s one of those tenants. His three-decker in Worcester’s Main South neighborhood has parlor heaters that his children sometimes inadvertently burn themselves on. He said he’s afraid to complain about fire safety hazards because his landlord could easily evict him or raise his rent in response.

“There’s always somebody waiting to get your apartment,” said Toney, who pays $1,400 a month in rent. “Help these poor tenants out. ... Put me somewhere safe.”

In Worcester, officials are considering creating a rental registry that will help keep track of rental properties across the city. Inspectors would use the registry to conduct fire safety inspections at each property.

“If we see major violations like open outlets or open wiring, we can cite for that,” said Spencer, the city’s commissioner of inspectional services.

Creating the registry would be “a gigantic step,” he added. “It’s something the city has never done.”

Still, the inspections will occur every five years, although officials may try to inspect properties with a history of code violations more often. With nearly 5,000 three-deckers, Spencer said the city of Worcester does not have the staffing resources to inspect all triple-deckers more regularly.

"Help these poor tenants out. ... Put me somewhere safe."
Daniel Toney, Worcester renter

Staffing limitations affect fire safety enforcement in other ways. Fall River sends out inspectors to multi-family dwellings to ensure smoke alarms are working properly and that emergency exits aren’t blocked. But staff shortages mean the inspections only occur when the owner of a property changes — which fire officials say doesn’t happen very often.

Given these limitations, the Massachusetts Fire Marshal’s office says a more effective way to make three-deckers safer is to strengthen state fire safety laws. For example, state law currently gives localities the option to require sprinkler systems be installed in buildings with four or more units that undergo renovations. In a statement to GBH News, the fire marshal’s office called on state lawmakers to make the requirement mandatory for all localities and to add three-deckers with less than four units to the mandate.

“If more new construction, renovations, and alterations included fire sprinklers instead of granite countertops, for example, we would see the housing stock become much safer over time, just as we did with seat belts in cars,” wrote Jake Wark, a spokesperson for the fire marshal’s office.

But Spencer and Worcester state Rep. Mary Keefe cautioned that forcing more landlords to immediately upgrade their buildings and mitigate fire risks would be expensive and lead landlords to cover the cost by increasing rents. Instead, Keefe said the solution is to provide more financial incentives to address the fire safety hazards.

She pointed to Worcester’s allocation of money to rehabilitate housing around the city as an example. Officials will provide grants up to $30,000 per unit to eligible owner-occupied rental properties that need upgrades to comply with building and sanitary codes. An affordable housing trust fund will also help fund renovations to apartments around the city.

“We need more of that,” Keefe said. “[That] increases the quality of our housing stock.”

This story was updated to correct the number of Worcester firefighters who have died in triple-decker fires since 1999. Three firefighters died in that timespan, not six. We regret the error.