Apartment Fires: How They Start and How to Stop Them
The thought of a home fire is frightening for everyone, but the fear is often greater for people living in apartments, condos and dorms. Multi-unit residential buildings can present unique fire safety concerns. With many neighbors living closely together, potentially confusing evacuation routes out of the building, and management companies pressured to balance tenant safety against a list of competing priorities, many apartment dwellers avoid thinking about fire risks altogether.
If you live in an apartment, however, understanding the risks and creating a fire preparedness plan can save your life. Most apartment fires are caused by easily avoidable human error and therefore, are often preventable. A bit of preparation can stop a small accident from becoming a big tragedy. Here's what you need to know to prevent, fight, and escape from apartment fires.
What Causes Apartment Fires?
Like other home fires, apartment blazes most often originate from everyday activities. The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) reported that half of the residential building fires in 2015 were caused by cooking-related accidents. The second most common cause involved heating mishaps, although electrical or equipment malfunctions, burning candles, and smoking were also cited as frequent causes.
How Can You Prevent Fires?
Tenants have control over many potential risks in their apartments.
Never leave the stovetop unattended when preparing food, and take care to turn off burners and appliances as soon as food preparation is done. Be especially careful when cooking or frying with oil or grease, and always keep clothing and other combustible materials away from flames.
Leave at least three feet of clearance around space heaters. Wood-burning heaters and fireplaces are less common in apartment buildings, but if you do use one, take care to properly clean and maintain it. This includes confirming that the building's chimneys are regularly serviced by a professional. Make sure ashes have cooled before disposing of them and do not put them in combustible containers (e.g., paper bags, plastic containers).
Be vigilant when using candles in your apartment. Never leave an open flame unattended and make sure to place candles far from curtains and other combustible items. Extinguish candles before leaving the room or going to sleep. (And check your lease, because some buildings don't allow open flames at all.)
It's safest to simply not smoke in your apartment; according to the American Red Cross, “smoking materials are the leading cause of residential fire deaths in the United States." But if you must smoke, never smoke in bed. Always fully extinguish cigarettes, cigars, and so on, before disposing of them safely. Keep matches and lighters where children can't reach them. (This applies to non-smokers as well, since kitchen matches and candle lighters are common tools in many homes.)
Furniture & Appliances
The materials used in upholstered furniture, though safer now than in the past, can still ignite quickly and release toxic fumes. Take special care to keep candles, heat sources, and active smokers far from upholstered chairs and sofas.
Electrical malfunctions accounted for about six percent of residential building fires, according to the USFA. Check electrical cords and replace if damaged, and use appliances as directed.
Ensuring that they have working smoke detectors is an easy thing that apartment-dwellers can do to protect themselves. Check that your apartment has a smoke detector in every room in which people sleep and outside each sleeping area. Push the test button once a month to check that the alarm is working. If your smoke detector needs a new battery that you cannot change or is malfunctioning, ask your landlord or super to take care of it as soon as possible. Smoke detectors older than 10 years need to be replaced, as do batteries older than six months.
Another way to stay prepared is to keep a fire extinguisher on hand to stop minor fires before they spread. Whether your apartment came with a fire extinguisher or you bought one yourself, check to make sure it's up-to-date and working properly. Your fire extinguisher may need recharging, especially if it's been used.
Be Aware of Building Safety
Although you can't control what others do in their apartments, you can look out for fire risks in the hallways and common areas of your building. Notify your building management if you spot anything that looks dangerous, such as smoke detectors that beep at random or ancient or missing fire extinguishers. Avoid propping open stairway doors, as closed doors are meant to slow the spread of fire. And do not clutter shared spaces with items that could block someone's way – especially at night.
If you're hunting for a new apartment, check the potential unit and building as a whole for working smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, and bring up any fire safety concerns you have before signing the lease.
Have an Escape Plan
Creating an escape plan is an essential aspect of fire preparedness that can help keep you from panicking in the moment. Identify the routes out of your building, and if you live with others, establish a meeting place outside. Conduct your own fire drills, during daylight hours and at night. If you have pets, or if there any other factors that would impact your escape, think through how you will deal with them. Know whether your building is considered fireproof. If so, you may be advised to stay in your apartment if a fire breaks out elsewhere in the building.