Apartment Fire: Are you at risk?

Photo from WRAL.com, Capitol Broadcasting, Photo taken by Mark Garloff. http://www.wral.com/news/local/image/12814650/?ref_id=12814621

Photo from WRAL.com, Capitol Broadcasting, Photo taken by Mark Garloff. http://www.wral.com/news/local/image/12814650/?ref_id=12814621

Why are multi-family renters at such a great risk of experiencing an apartment fire? Multi-family renters share a wall, a ceiling or a floor with people they don’t know.  Apartments gather unrelated people of many backgrounds, socio-economic statuses and cultures. The risk and possibility of fire is ever-present. You never know when people on the other side of the wall are creating dangerous conditions they can’t control and you aren’t even aware of.  Do you have a fire extinguisher in your kitchen? You might have one, but do your neighbors have a fire extinguisher?  Are your smoke detectors working?  It’s totally possible the battery was low in one of their smoke detectors and they never replaced the battery.

Does that make you nervous?  Hopefully it makes you cautious and conscientious.  Multi-family renters should be comforted by the benefit of established safety codes that were created and designed to save lives.   City governments often mandate inspections to ensure codes are maintained.  Landlords are penalized for non-compliance and many districts inspect annually.  Fire safety involves everyone. The good news? Apartments are more likely than single-family homes to have sprinklers installed.  They are often mandated to periodically inspect for operating smoke detectors.  Smoke detectors are given, but sprinkler systems alone drastically reduce the death rate in fires.  Although sprinkler systems are not designed to fully extinguish fires, they are supposed to buy you extra time.   Once a fire ignites, you would not believe how important every single second matters.  Count to “One Mississippi” and think about what can happen in that time frame if you are dealing with a fire. Cooking is far and away the leading cause of fires in both single family and multi-family homes.  Some fires happen so fast and furious, a fire extinguisher can’t help.  The second leading cause is the improper disposal of smoking materials.  Fires caused by improperly extinguished smoking materials have the highest death rate. According to the National Fire Protection Agency, The incidence of apartment fire has dropped significantly.

  • In 1980 records report an apartment fire in 119,700 cases with 1,025 deaths.
  • In 2011 the reported number for an apartment fire had dropped over 21%, but the number of deaths had dropped over 40%.

The statistics are moving in the right direction and likely attributed to better standards in building codes and better methods of compliance.  Since cooking is THE leading cause of an apartment fire, it’s an action that isn’t likely to change soon.  Cooking will always be necessary but the bigger issue is continued distractions while cooking.  It is understandable in our heightened state of distraction, how easy it is to walk away from cooking.  It can happen.  It only takes a second.  That’s when fire safety matters the most. The Leading Cause of Apartment Fires What could your neighbor be doing that puts you, your family or your pet(s) in danger?

  • Cooking – Statistically, the number of fires peak during holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.
    • Cooking with grease on a stove-top.
    • Cooking with fryers containing a large amount of oil.
    • combustible materials left too close to the burner (oven mitts, kitchen towels, paper towels, food containers, plastic utensils, etc.)
    • Unattended cooking (Maybe they got distracted, got a call, heard the laundry stop, fell asleep or passed out).
  • Smoking
    • Careless
    • Not properly disposing of cigarette butts
  • Lit Candles
    • Leaving candles lit and unattended. Pets are known for being curious about candle flames or not aware of them and a wagging tail re-arranged objects or the candle itself.
    • Candles placed too close to flammable materials can catch them on fire.  It’s not always obvious, but a breeze from a fan, opening of closing a door or even an open window has the potential to move an object (piece of paper, curtain or a dry-cleaning bag) closer to the lit candle and it has ignited.
  • Grills
    • Grilling on their balcony or patio
    • Improperly disposing of ashes and/or grease
    • Propane tank in storage on the balcony
  • Electronics and Decorations.
    • Dry Christmas trees strung with lights.  (People changing to cooler, lower wattage LED lights greatly reduce the risk of a dry tree igniting.
    • Hair Dryers, Flat Irons, clothing irons, etc. can be left on.
    • Older or damaged portable electronics could overheat.

Serious, realistic ways to prevent fires in multi-family housing:

  1. MOST IMPORTANT: Make sure all smoke detectors installed are regularly inspected and always operating.  (Many people have removed batteries because of the low battery chirp and never installed a fresh battery.  That can be a deadly oversight!)
  2. Conscientious cooking that is never left unattended.
  3. Carefully maintaining a safe distance between the stove top and your utensils, oven mitts or other items.
  4. Immediately report a grill, outdoor heating device, or propane tank being stored on balconies to the property owner or management company. Although many municipalities can’t ban the storage of a grill on their balcony, they can and usually do ban the storage of propane and other fuel sources.  (Depending on their lease, the owners could ban the storage in their lease agreement.)
  5. Immediately call emergency officials if you see a grill currently in use that is on a balcony or within 10 feet of the building.
  6. Smokers must extinguish their cigarettes in an appropriate receptacle.  Even ashtrays become flammable if they haven’t been emptied.

No one intends to cause a fire when cooking.  It’s not something you typically think about.  When a fire breaks out, you are on a countdown to safety and every single second matters. Stay focused on getting out What are the most crucial steps to surviving a fire? Think back to fire safety exposure at a young age.  Basic actions can have big outcomes.

  • Do you know where the closest fire extinguisher is located? Depending on your local building codes and the age of the building, many buildings have at least one fire extinguisher on each floor.  Become familiar with its location and immediately report any damaged, missing or outdated fire extinguisher.  If you see a problem, it becomes your responsibility to report it.  Don’t assume someone else will.  There’s no harm in several reports.
  • Have a fire safety plan:
    • Have periodic conversations with all occupants of your home, including  children.  Walk through the possibilities and what options you have for escape.  Apartments typically have only one door to the outside (Unless you have a door to a balcony or patio).
    • Do you have pets?  Keep a carrier, kennel or other item in the coat closet by the door to grab on the way out?  Where would your pet hide if he/she were panicked? Do you have a “Rescue My Pets” sticker on at least one window and your door in case a fire occurs during your absence?
    • Once you are out of the apartment, where would you meet? Minimize panic and further danger by making sure everyone knows they should go to the same, pre-determined place.
  • Don’t panic.   Easier said than done, but most fire safety literature post this as one of the most important things.  I think a better way to say it, is to stay focused on getting out.  Don’t think about things, don’t get dressed, don’t do things or try to get things.  Getting out with your life is the most important thing.
  • Get out as fast as you can.
  • If you are trying to get out of a building, home, apartment or structure that is on fire, don’t open doors until you have felt them for heat.  If the fire is behind that door, opening the door can feed the fire oxygen and cause it to grow quickly.
  • If you are trapped in a room:  Use items from the room to seal the cracks around the door(s), covering any vents if possible, and make  sure that emergency crews know your exact location. Open a window, find something large to wave out of the window.
  • If you find yourself affected by smoke, get as close to the ground as possible to minimize your exposure.   Smoke from burning plastics, electronics and things like Styrofoam can be toxic, thick and unexpected in the chaos of escape. Always protect your lungs from smoke.

Here are the sources I used for this article: fire statistics: http://www.nfpa.org/research/fire-statistics/the-us-fire-problem/apartment-structure-fires http://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/statistics/fa-286.pdf http://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/statistics/urban.pdf http://www.abcfoxmontana.com/story/23117523/how-to-rescue-an-animal-in-a-fire Free rescue alert sticker https://www.aspca.org/form/free-pet-safety-pack Shop for rescue stickers: http://www.zazzle.com/fireman+rescue+my+pets+gifts http://www.apetslifemagazine.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=70%3Apaw-vention-fire-safety&catid=22%3Ahealth-safety&Itemid=197#!Fire_Safety__2_

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