Too Hot to Handle

Fire Safety for Multifamily Buildings

By Anne Childers

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 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.  

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 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.  

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