Best practices for high-rise and multi-family fire safety and prevention

Jason Van Steenwyk
Jason Van Steenwyk | 6 min. read

Published on November 3, 2015

The holidays are coming, and that means residential structure fire season is coming. This applies not just to single family homes, of course, but also to apartments and condominiums and in townhomes, low-rise and high-rise communities alike (though considerations and countermeasures are slightly different for each type of property).

The threats

Apartment fires: there were about 98,000 reported apartment fires in 2013, which killed at least 325 people that year, and injured about $3,900 more, according to data from the National Fire Prevention Association.

High-rises: Each year between 2007 and 2011, there were about 15,400 reported high-rise structure fires. While most were relatively minor, the threat is nevertheless deadly – and expensive. These high-rise fires kill about 46 people, injure over 500 more, and cause $219 million in direct property damage per year.

All told, apartment fires result in between $1.1 and $1.6 billion in damages. Every year. Most of them could have been easily prevented with proactive planning, communication and outreach on the part of property and community managers.

Here are some of the best practices that multi-family residential managers and their staffs can put to work to keep your residents safe.

The causes

The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) has published a detailed report on the seasonality of residential fires and their causes. Heating-related causes account for 27 percent of winter structural fires, and as you would expect, are concentrated in the colder months of the year, with elevated frequencies between December and February. (The single most dangerous day for fires, though, is Independence Day. However, those in areas with substantial Asian populations may see substantial fireworks-related risk due to the observance of Chinese New Year, traditionally celebrated with firecrackers.)

Every year, there are about 900 fires that occur specifically because of holiday decorations catching fire, according to the National Fire Prevention Administration.

Five holiday safety tips

  1. Tell residents about Christmas tree safety.  Needles should be green and difficult to pull off. If they are brown, dry or fall off the boughs without much effort, the tree is extra flammable and not a good choice. To prevent fires after the holidays, consider arranging a pickup service to remove trees after Christmas/New Year’s Day.
  2. Tell residents not to set Christmas trees up near heat sources. (Note, if you know there’s a radiator vent near the front window, and you see Christmas trees set up by the window, you know there’s a potential problem).
  3. Share information with residents about light safety. More than three light strands should not be linked up unless the manufacturer’s written guidance says differently. Wires on electric lights should never be warm to the touch. Keep Menorahs away from drapes. Even the electric ones.
  4. Stay alert during Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving-related fires account for 5,200 fires each year, injure 51 people and kill about 11. Yes, they’re largely cooking-related.
  5. Bump up your security presence on Halloween. The incidence of confirmed or suspected arson is higher on Halloween or “Devil’s Night.” The City of Detroit had a big problem with Devil’s Night arsonists in the 1990s, but managed to turn it around when property owners, law enforcement and fire departments got proactive about removing abandoned vehicles, mattresses and other debris and establishing neighborhood watch countermeasures on October 29th through the 31st.

Plus Fifteen year-round fire prevention tips

  1. Get ahead of the game by engaging residents with flyers, mailers and even on-site fire safety clinics you can hold in common areas. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The City of Vancouver, Washington, has made monthly seasonal newsletters available for download. Bonus: The text is available in Spanish and Russian, as well!
  2. You can also download a variety of excellent flyers from the National Fire Prevention Association dealing with topics like religious candles, Shabbat fire safety, fireworks, grilling safety, appliances like dryers, microwaves, generators, medical oxygen and many others here.
  3. Ask for a courtesy inspection from your local fire marshal. They will inspect the common areas of your building and such units as you have access to and advise you of any hazards they spot. Possible hazards include overloaded outlets, circuits, obstructions, improper storage of chemicals and other hazardous or combustible material, and other things property managers commonly miss. They can also suggest equipment, materials, techniques or measures you can take to make your property safer from fires. Generally you won’t be fined for issues or violations of code uncovered during a courtesy visit that you request, provided you correct them in a timely manner. Some areas charge a small fee for these visits.
  4. Carefully inspect laundry rooms. Remove lint buildup in hoses. Pay careful attention to anywhere exhaust hoses may twist or turn – potentially causing buildup. Also ensure your wiring is adequate to handle the load, and check for water leaks near electrical appliances that can create a risk of electrocution.
  5. Get furnaces and HVAC units serviced before the weather turns cold, and people start turning on the heat.
  6. Get the word out about space heaters: Keep them at least three feet from anything remotely flammable. Never leave them on unattended.
  7. Ask residents to unplug small appliances when not in use.
  8. Tell residents to notify your staff immediately in case any breakers trip. Tripped breakers can be a sign of a serious electrical problem.
  9. Have a licensed firm inspect and charge your fire extinguishers before the holidays.
  10. Consider requiring renters insurance from all tenants. You can make this contingent on lease renewal.
  11. Rehearse your fire drill. Ensure there is a procedure in place to get firefighters access to utility rooms, storage areas, electrical rooms and anywhere else fires may break out or where firefighters may need to shut off electricity or elevators, etc.
  12. Clear driveways and approaches of debris and ensure that in the event of a fire, fire trucks have plenty of room to approach and maneuver anywhere on the property.
  13. Enforce no-parking or stopping areas to ensure emergency vehicle access to fire hydrants.
  14. Schedule an appropriate time to  test your fire sprinkler and smoke alarm system checks and replace batteries. Make sure you document this effort, right down to the individual alarm. Don’t forget to check carbon monoxide detectors.
  15. Have chimneys inspected by certified contractors.
Read more on Maintenance & Improvements
Jason Van Steenwyk

Jason is a freelance writer and editor, as well as an avid fiddler. His articles have been published in a number of real estate publications including Wealth and Retirement Planner and He lives in Fort Lauderdale, FL with his cat, Sasha, and an unknown number of musical instruments.

Be a more productive
property manager