The discovery of fire is considered a major turning point in man's evolution from cave dweller to outer space explorer. Control of fire allowed early man warmth for his habitat, a way to cook his meals, and light for his surroundings. Fire also provided a means to frighten away predators and introduced a social element by bringing other humans together in a communal setting.
Harnessed and used for good, fire remains a wonderful tool for progress—but when out of control, flames are a deadly, devastating force. It is mankind’s best friend and fiercest enemy.
A Bit of History
The history of firefighting is probably as old as the element itself, but organized firefighting can be traced back to ancient Egypt where hand-operated pumps and bucket brigades were first employed to extinguish runaway flames.
Hand pumps and buckets were the state of the art in firefighting until 1672, when Dutch inventor Jan Van der Heiden invented the fire hose. Van der Heiden’s design was constructed of flexible leather coupled with brass fittings every 50 feet. The design was so perfect that the length and connections still remain the industry standard today.
The first fire engine appeared on the scene in 1725 and is attributed to Richard Newsham of London, England. Teams of men were employed to operate the manual pumps on specially designed horse-drawn carts when fire broke out. These early engines could deliver up to 160 gallons per minute at up to 120 feet in distance.
In this country, devastating fires in Jamestown and Boston inspired citizens to take greater measures towards combating fires. By 1648, Fire Wardens were appointed to patrol most cities—specifically to inspect chimneys, where most fires started. If fire was spotted during the night watches, the wardens would rouse the citizens to form bucket brigades. Wooden chimneys and thatched roofs were eventually outlawed, and heavy fines levied on non-compliant citizens.
The first volunteer fire company in America, the Union Fire Company was created by Benjamin Franklin in 1736 in Philadelphia. George Washington was also a volunteer firefighter with the Friendship Veterans Fire Engine Company in Alexandria, Virginia. In fact, Washington bought and donated Alexandria’s first fire engine.
By 1850, full-time firefighters were employed in most cities, but even after the formation of paid fire companies, there were disagreements and fights over territories. The early fire companies were paid by insurance companies, and turf wars between responding units were common. Government-run fire departments first appeared around the time of the Civil War. Today, fire and rescue is often a mix of full-time paid, paid-on-call, and volunteer responders. Most major cities are served by large, paid, well trained firefighting teams.
We Didn't Start the Fire
The majority of residential fires are a result of careless actions and habits of residents and often, completely avoidable. Every fire expert we spoke to cited cooking as the most frequent culprit. According to the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), 33 percent of fires in the kitchen result from unattended cooking. Often residents will leave the kitchen for a television show or phone call, giving frying, grilling and boiling pans to perfect opportunity to set on fire.
Another common cause of residential fires is heating. Heating is the second leading cause of fires in condo and co-op buildings, says Jeffrey M. Amato PE, senior fire protection engineer at Hughes Associates, Inc. in Manhattan. “It applies to those fires that are caused by functioning or malfunctioning central heating units, fixed or portable local heating units, fireplaces, heating stoves, chimneys, and water heaters. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, heating was actually the leading cause, due to a surge in the use of alternative space heaters and wood heating,” he says.
Fire Prevention in Multifamily Buildings
Fortunately with careful actions and monitoring, most residential fires can be prevented. But fire prevention encompasses more than just turning off your stove or not throwing a lit cigarette in the trash; there are a few key practices that boards and residents should know and engage in.
Your first line of defense is fire alarms. “Working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are crucial to surviving a fire or carbon monoxide incident. They provide early notification,” says Frank Dwyer, FDNY spokesperson.
Residents are usually responsible for the battery life for detectors inside their units and management needs to ensure that there are detectors installed on the ceiling within fifteen feet of the primary entrance to all rooms used for sleeping purposes, according to the New York City Fire Department. Detectors are also required in each story within a dwelling unit including basement and storage areas.
Sprinkler systems, which are now a standard feature rather than an amenity in multifamily homes, are extremely valuable when it comes to fire prevention. “A fire sprinkler system protects lives and property by keeping fires small. Because the sprinkler system reacts so quickly, it can dramatically reduce the heat, flames, and smoke produced in a fire, allowing people more time to escape safely,” says Judy Comoletti, division manager of public education for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
An important part of fire prevention also includes proper property maintenance. “Building staff and management should know that many fires could be prevented by regular inspections and maintenance. Inspections for electrical hazards, such as worn electrical cords, overloaded extension cords and outlets, and broken appliances should be conducted regularly. Many heating related fires can be prevented through proper maintenance and proper use of heating equipment. With the large percentage of heating fires currently reported, most occur due to lack of proper cleaning of components and equipment. The importance of proper maintenance cannot be overstated. Both furnaces and chimneys should be professionally inspected annually and cleaned as necessary. Chimney tar (creosote) build-up is a common cause of chimney fires. Building staff can ensure wood stoves are properly installed, away from combustible surfaces, have the proper floor support, and adequate ventilation,” Amato explains.
Dwyer adds, “Management and board should make sure that residents know where exits are located, make sure they are clearly labeled, and that residents are aware of their locations.”
When developing a prevention/evacuation plan for the building, an excellent starting place for all boards would be with the local fire department. Many fire departments will come out to residents and host a seminar about fire safety and prevention. In addition to your fire department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and NFPA have guidelines on how to establish the best evacuation plan. Dwyer also suggests consulting with the New York City Office of Emergency Management.
The FDNY Fire Safety Education Unit advises residents to create individualized escape plans beginning with drawing out your floor plan, including bedrooms, windows and stairwells. Arrows should mark two ways out of each room. And remember, one plan isn't enough. Dwyer stresses the importance of having at least two other evacuation options available in case your exits in Plan A become blocked or inaccessible.
After developing a plan, it must be shared with residents. “Building management and the homeowners association should meet regularly with residents to discuss fire prevention. Brochures or pamphlets prepared by building management are a good way of notifying residents of important issues. Whenever possible, hands-on training should be provided to demonstrate fire prevention, such as how to properly use alternative heating appliances. Residents should be made aware of any fire incidences in the building,” Amato says.
If there are residents requiring special assistance in the event of a fire or other emergency, it is imperative to have an evacuation plan in place ahead of time. “People who may not be able to escape on their own need to have a plan to assist in their safe evacuation and management should know who may need assistance,” says Comoletti. “Include those who need assistance to plan how best to accommodate them. They will be able to provide input on the best methods for them to escape.”
She suggests installing an evacuation chair that can assist individuals with a mobility disability and providing residents opportunity on how to use it. It is also important to consider residents with service animals, as they may need to have a special evacuation plan prepared for them. All circumstances that require special assistance can be discussed with your local fire department.
Then, it's practice, practice, practice. Simply being aware of a plan won't help you in a fire, when emotions and anxiety are running high. Holding monthly or quarterly “fire drills” for your building can help residents identify exits and meeting areas first hand and learn how to escape quickly, should a real fire take place.
In Case of Fire
In the event of a fire, it is imperative that residents remain calm and try to identify the best and quickest exit strategy. Another important tip for residents to remember is to feel the unit door before opening it to the common hallway. If the door is cool to the touch, the door may be opened slowly; if there is smoke present in the hallway the door should be closed immediately. A wet bath towel may be placed firmly along the inside of the door, and the fire department should be called immediately. A resident may then open a window and have a towel or scarf to signal the location of the unit and alert the fire and rescue team.
If the door is cool to the touch and there is no smoke a resident may move quickly but safely to the designated fire exit. Residents are urged to close doors to the unit in order to keep the fire from spreading from one unit to another. Leaving a door open allows fire and smoke to travel much quicker and can obstruct a potential exit for another resident.
It may be necessary to crawl or stay low, and visibility may be limited if smoke is encountered. A damp towel is excellent to protect your nose and mouth in the event of smoke. Any fire alarm box encountered along the exit route should be activated, to further alert both residents and rescue team members.
The level of community involvement desired in the planning and preparation for emergency action will ultimately be a board decision. However, once those plans are in place all residents should be made aware of the details by the accepted method of community communication and updates and reviews should occur on a regular basis in order to ensure the health, safety and peace of mind of both residents and board members.
Anne Childers is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator. Editorial Assistant Maggie Puniewska contributed to this article.