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Preventing Fires in Apartments

Each year, approximately 375,00 residential fires occur. These fires claim over 2,600 lives and injure another 13,000 people. They also cause more than $7 billion in property damage. The chances of a fire starting in an apartment are the same as any other residential location, but the potential for death, injury and damage is much greater.

Instead of affecting one family, a fire in an apartment building can force many families out of their homes and damage their possessions. Apartment property owners and managers can reduce the risk of fire by following a few proven prevention techniques. 

Inside the Building 

Most apartment fires are caused by hazards inside the building. Tenant carelessness, lack of maintenance and improper use of appliances are just a few of the reasons why fires start. Consider the following techniques to address interior fire hazards:

Cooking—According to the United States Fire Administration and Seattle Fire Department, cooking is a leading cause of fires. The majority of these fires happen when food is left unattended on the stove. Common ignitable materials are grease, oils and flammable items (e.g. paper products or plastic bags) near or on the stove. Remind tenants to never leave the stove unattended while cooking and to keep the area uncluttered. 

Electrical—According to the United States Fire Administration, more than 25% of structure fires occur in apartments. Many of these are caused by some type of electrical problem. Check out these guidelines to help reduce the risk of electrical-related fires:

  • Hire only qualified electricians operating under the National Electric Code® to conduct all electrical installation projects and wiring in the building.
  • Only allow extension cords for temporary use. Tenants often use extension cords if there are too few electrical outlets or if the outlet spacing is too great. If tenants are seen using extension cords, additional outlets should be installed.
  • Inform tenants about the dangers of heat producing appliances like curling irons, blow dryers, space heaters and toasters. These types of appliances should remain unplugged when not in use. Additionally, space heaters should be placed no closer than 3 feet (or farther if recommended by the manufacturer) from any combustible material and they should never be plugged into extension cords.
  • Never allow tenants to run extension cords from one apartment to another to supply temporary power to a tenant without electricity. 

Heating and Ventilation Units—These should be serviced regularly to help prevent fires. Keep motors free of grease and dust, check furnace filters and change when necessary, and make sure fresh air returns and vents are kept clean and open to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. 

Laundry Rooms—Another common area for fire hazards, laundry rooms house lint and other combustible debris. These materials accumulate over time behind equipment and can ignite when heated. To avoid laundry room fires, take the following measures: 

  • Post signs reminding tenants to clean dryer lint screens before each use.
  • Install dryer vents that are continuous to the outside of the building.
  • Clean dryer and washer motors as needed to eliminate grease and lint accumulation.
  • Ensure gas vents for water heaters and dryers are maintained and are continuous to the outside of the building. 

Smoke Detectors—Install smoke detectors in several locations, including inside every bedroom, outside every bedroom and on every hallway level of the building. Smoke detector batteries must be changed annually by the property manager. Do not assume that tenants will replace the batteries when the detector starts to beep. Many tenants will simply remove the battery, leaving them unprotected. Find additional information about smoke detectors in the EMC Tech Sheet: Apartment Smoke Detection

Fire Alarms—Many building codes require the installation of central station monitored alarm systems for fire, medical and police emergencies. Once installed, test the alarm at least twice per year and ensure all tenants are aware of when to use the alarm. 

Sprinkler Systems—If a sprinkler system is installed, test it quarterly, as recommended by the National Fire Protection Association. Maintain an 18-inch clearance between stored items and sprinklers to ensure a proper water distribution. 

Fire Extinguishers—When operated by trained persons, fire extinguishers can significantly reduce the damage caused by a fire. Since it is likely that most tenants have not been trained in the use of extinguishers, it is important that property owners communicate fire procedures to all. Fire extinguishers should only be used in the following instances: 

  • When the fire department has been called
  • If the building is being evacuated
  • If the user has been trained and is comfortable using the extinguisher
  • When the fire is small and contained in the area where it started
  • If the person extinguishing the fire has their back to an exit 

Fire Prevention – Outside the Building 

Although many fires start inside an individual residence, fire hazards also exist outside the building. Consider the following exterior fire hazards and preventative measures: 

Barbecue Grills—These are often regulated by city ordinances addressing their use in apartment buildings (both LP gas and charcoal). If your city does not have such an ordinance, tenants should be encouraged to constantly attend to the grill while food is cooking. 

Tenants should also have a fire extinguisher nearby in case of emergency. LP gas cylinders should not be used or stored inside buildings or on balconies. Instead, store them in a secured, shaded area outside the building.

Trash Dumpsters—Place dumpsters away from buildings and roof overhangs. There should be at least 5 feet between the dumpster and anything that can burn (e.g., roofs, overhangs, carports, trees, etc.). 

Decorative Foliage—Shrubs, bushes, trees and other types of decorative growth must be maintained to prevent overgrowth into emergency exit routes. In addition, shrubs next to the building should be well-watered and trimmed. Keeping shrubs healthy and away from the building makes them less likely to burn. 

Fire Hydrants—Firefighters must be able to easily access fire hydrants in the event of an emergency. Hydrants should never be blocked by shrubbery, vehicles or snow. Damage to a hydrant must be reported immediately to the local fire department. 

Additional Fire Prevention Tips: 

Here are some other tips to share with tenants: 

  • Never smoke in bed
  • Never store flammable liquids or combustible materials near furnaces, water heaters or other heat producing equipment
  • Keep lids tight on flammable liquids, and if possible, store outside the building
  • Keep candles in stable holders and place them where they cannot be easily knocked over
  • Never leave the house with candles burning
  • Keep curtains and other hanging material away from halogen lamps
  • Keep all mechanical and electrical equipment well-maintained
  • Maintain the fireplace, use fire screens and clean the chimney annually
  • Keep matches and lighters locked up and away from children

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