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Smoke-detector bill shows how Albany really works

ALBANY – Like so many of the other 14,672 bills introduced in the State Legislature this year, Assembly bill number A3057a fell largely below most people’s attention levels.

Yet, behind the scenes, an often furious lobbying effort raged over a simple device that often costs less than $20: a smoke detector.

Lobbying the bill were battery makers like Duracell and Energizer, manufacturers of smoke detectors, and trade groups representing everyone from fire chiefs and volunteer fire companies to home builders, real estate developers and private colleges. Even Google got in on the act.

Over what?

Whether New York should limit the sale of smoke detectors to only those with tamper-free battery compartments and enough battery power to last 10 years.

It culminated Tuesday with word that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had signed the legislation.

The lobbying work on A3057a, and its companion S2696a in the State Senate, is yet another story of how deep-pocket interests quietly carry out their trade at the Capitol and have an effect on everything from tax levels and education spending to the specific manufacturing details of products on store shelves.

In the case of this legislation, it shows how a bit of lobbying tenacity can pay off and, in classic Albany style, everyone can sometimes come out as believing they are a winner.

Yes, Cuomo did sign the legislation, but he did so with some side deals with lawmakers that bow to some concerns that industry groups and their lobbyists raised. The language of those arrangements has not been formally released. That won’t happen until sometime in 2016 when a “chapter amendment” is released showing the precise language the Legislature agreed to in order for Cuomo to sign the smoke alarm bill.

Advocates boast of a new law that will reduce fire fatalities. Industry groups that raised concerns got, with Cuomo’s insistence, additional time before the law is fully implemented, among other possible changes.

Already on shelves

Smoke detectors with added battery life are already available on store shelves. But they are not mandated, so many consumers opt for the cheaper units that frequently have battery lives of a year or less.

The idea of requiring tamper-proof battery compartments – along with non-replaceable batteries with a minimum 10-year life span – has floundered for at least four years at the Capitol. The lobbying effort to get the bill passed in 2015 picked up with media accounts of several fatal fires, including a 2014 fire that killed people outside Rochester. That fire was used in the public push by Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, a Rochester-area Democrat who was joined in advancing the bill by the Senate’s powerful sponsor: John Flanagan, the Senate’s new Republican majority leader from Suffolk County.

The bill was among those pushed through in June in the end-of-session frenzy. Of 208 lawmakers voting on the bill in the Assembly and Senate, only one voted no. The bill, however, was not sent to Cuomo for his consideration until Dec. 16, giving advocates and opponents time to hone their message to Cuomo.

The bill’s backers say the mandated smoke detectors are needed to prevent consumers from disabling the devices when they go off, for instance, because some toast was burned. A third of consumers have de-activated their smoke alarms because of “unwanted” alarms caused by cooking, steam, cigarettes or low-battery chirps, according to a federal study cited in a legislative bill memo in support of the new law.

The tamper-proof compartments also could prevent parents from using the batteries from the detectors for their kid’s toy or some other device, and then forgetting to replace them in the smoke alarms.

And a 10-year battery life would end the need for homeowners to remember to replace the batteries once every six months or so.

Vetoing such a bill, particularly during the holiday season when fire concerns are heightened with Christmas lights and roaring fireplaces, would have proven tricky for Cuomo.

Behind the scenes, though, some industry groups were warning Cuomo that the measure could actually backfire, giving consumers a false sense of security and allow them to think they could install one of the new devices onto a wall or ceiling and forget about it for 10 years.

Lobbying on bill

The day after the bill was sent to Cuomo, a group called the Corporation for Battery Recycling, representing Duracell and Energizer, wrote to the governor and urged him to veto the bill. The two companies are major battery suppliers to the millions of smoke alarms sold each year with shorter lifespans.

The legislation, the battery group argued, “may unwittingly put consumers at risk.” It said evidence of the reliability of batteries with 10-year lifespans was shaky, noting a federal study showed 78 percent of smoke alarms with 10-year batteries were functional eight to 10 years after being activated.

An array of groups had lobbied the bill. Google had an outside lobbyist and one of its own Manhattan executives lobbying the bill, according to disclosure records filed with the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics. Google’s subsidiary, Nest, markets a smoke alarm that uses six Energizer batteries that do not appear would meet the requirements of the smoke detector legislation.

Google did not return an email seeking comments about what position it took on the bill.

The final bill, like those in other states, included some carve-outs, or exceptions, to the mandates, including not affecting smoke alarms powered by a building’s electrical system or devices “that use a low-power radio frequency wireless communication signal.”

BRK Brands, makers of First Alert alarms, had a lobbyist on the bill, as did United Technologies Corp., which makes Kidde-brand alarms. Duracell’s Proctor & Gamble parent company also lobbied the measure, records show. The companies did not respond to inquiries about the legislation.

Among the others lobbying the bill, according to JCOPE filings, was the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents more than 100 private colleges in New York. Though the group’s retained lobbyist listed the bill as among those lobbied during the past session, a spokeswoman said the association did not take a position on the measure.

Amending the bill

Another group that jumped into the lobbying effort – the New York State Builders Association – fully backed the effort, according to Lewis Dubuque, the group’s executive vice president.

“We think it is a great idea to have 10 year-batteries to make them as reliable as possible. Smoke detectors are an effective way to save lives,” he said.

Checking in with its own concerns was the Rent Stabilization Association, the largest landlords group in New York City. RSA was concerned because its members have already been complying with a 10-year battery smoke detector law in New York City since 2013, said Frank Ricci, the group’s government affairs director.

“I think our lobbying was, ‘Hey, we’ve got the law in New York City. At least exempt out multi-dwelling buildings,” he said of concerns about a potentially dueling set of local and state laws.

The group’s worries were not specifically addressed in the legislation.

In signing the bill, Cuomo said smoke detectors unquestionably save lives. But he said the legislation has created “technical issues … that would make it difficult to implement successfully.” As such, he said the bill’s sponsors have agreed to adopt changes to the measure in 2016.

Cuomo did not specifically state his concerns in the approval message, but an administration official said worries were raised that the bill did not allow for changes in future technology in the smoke alarm and battery industries. Also, lawmakers agreed to give authority to the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control to review new products to see if the detectors fit the new mandates, the administration said.

Delayed start

Further, the administration successfully got a delay in the full implementation of the law. The law, as passed, requires smoke alarms sold after January 1, 2017, to have only non-replaceable, 10-year batteries. The deal struck in return for Cuomo signing the bill calls for the industry’s full compliance with that edict to be pushed back by two years.

The most visible vocal lobbying force was the Firemen’s Association of New York State, which represents 94,000 volunteer firefighters statewide. Among the arguments it had to beat back was a cost one; the group said the 10-year battery devices do cost more – about $25 or so – but consumers will save more money over the years by not having to replace batteries.

New York becomes the 12th state to have such a smoke detector law. At least eight cities, including New York, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Houston and Phoenix, have similar laws.

“This law will no doubt go a long ways towards ensuring New York is a safer place,” FASNY President Robert McConville said Tuesday.