Less than three weeks after a rowhouse fire killed 12 people in Philadelphia, the city's top firefighter on Tuesday said policymakers should focus on one of the "root causes" - a dearth of safe, affordable housing.

Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said fire-prevention measures such as installing more smoke alarms and retrofitting homes with sprinkler systems are important steps to reducing deaths and injuries, but "equity is a really important component of this."

"It is much too simple and it's wrong to blame a 5-year-old, or blame a family that really doesn't have any other options, for the fire problem in the United States," he said. "It's much bigger than that."

Thiel spoke during a virtual panel organized by the National Fire Protection Association in the wake of the historically deadly fire in Philadelphia on Jan. 5 - which investigators believe started when a 5-year-old boy was playing with a lighter near a Christmas tree - and another deadly fire four days later in the Bronx. That blaze, which officials blamed on a space heater, killed 17 people, including eight children.

Both fires ranked among the deadliest the nation has seen in decades and took place in subsidized housing. The rowhouse in the city's Fairmount section is a duplex owned and managed by the federally funded Philadelphia Housing Authority. The apartment building in the Bronx is supervised by the State of New York, and most of its residents used federal Section 8 vouchers, which cover some housing costs for low-income residents and the elderly.

The Philadelphia fire is believed to have started on the second floor of a three-story building and spread to the third, where three sisters and nine of their children died of smoke inhalation. Fourteen people were in the upper apartment at the time of the blaze, and records show the PHA knew of the overcrowding in the home but did not move the residents. There is a yearslong backlog of wait-listed tenants seeking public housing in Philadelphia.

Fire officials said six smoke alarms in the apartment didn't sound because they were either disabled or did not have batteries. The apartment did not have a fire escape, sprinkler system, or fire extinguisher - none of which city code requires for homes of that size.

Officials in Washington have considered requiring sprinkler systems in federally funded housing, which would include properties owned and managed by PHA, but have not done so, according to U.S. Fire Administrator Lori Moore-Merrell. "It comes down to money in every instance," she said during the panel discussion.

Jim Pauley, president and CEO of the Fire Protection Association, said fire death rates are 89% lower in houses with sprinklers and working smoke alarms.

Philadelphia code requires sprinklers to be installed in newly built rowhouses, but adding systems to existing houses is "not as simple as it sounds," Thiel said. Much of the city's housing stock is rowhouses built in the 19th century, he said, so retrofitting entire blocks with sprinklers would be "a tall order indeed from an engineering perspective."

It would also require additional enforcement. Thiel said the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections has long been "woefully under-resourced." He also said he has "never seen a fire department that was funded at the level the community expects."

The city's Fire Department intends to seek federal funds to reopen three fire companies that were closed amid budget cuts more than a decade ago.

A "robust response force" will be needed, Thiel said, until "the entire system has been uplifted because folks have what they need to get safe and affordable housing."

aorso@inquirer.com anna_orso