Spotting Fire Hazards in Apartment Buildings (and How to Get Them Fixed)

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After years of writing this blog I am constantly surprised at how many major topics within the sphere of rental housing I've yet to address. This past week thoughts of fire safety have been on the mind of many people around the world after global news coverage of the April 15 fires at Notre Dame de Paris and Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque. While I've touched on the idea of fire hazards in rental housing in several articles before, I've never dedicated an entire article to it. So let's do that today.

Fire Statistics for Chicago Apartments

Since the Chicago Fire Department doesn't make public its data on outcalls per year it is very tough to ascertain how many fires occur in the city each year, how many of them occur at residences, and whether or not your own building has been the site of a fire in recent memory. However, "tough to ascertain" never stopped me, so I've done what I can to figure out some estimates.

A DNAInfo article from 2016 talking with the city's head of fire investigations mentions that the department records about 3000 fires per year. FEMA provides a wealth of fire statistics for the nation but doesn't get into the specifics of Chicago. With a little extrapolation, we can figure that about 900 of those 3000 annual Chicago fires are residential. (The actual number is probably higher given that we've not got a lot of agricultural land or forests around here. Still going to ballpark it at 900.) To figure out how many of those fires occur in rental housing, we lop off 45%, leaving us with roughly 495 apartment fires.

Continuing on the FEMA site, we learn that while half of the fires in residences are caused by cooking accidents, these kitchen mishaps are some of the least fatal fires. We also learn that while only 0.75% of the fires are fatal and 3% cause non-fatal injuries, each fire causes about $15.7k in damage. Excluding firefighters, more men are injured in fires than women.

Buried deep within the FEMA site I found a report on Multifamily Residential Building Fire statistics. Some figures of note:

  • These fires account for 29% of all residential building fires. (However, Chicago has a lot more rentals than most areas of the country.)
  • Most of the fires are small and contained.
  • Cooking fires are far more likely in multifamily buildings than they are in single family homes.
  • Most multifamily fires do not spread beyond the room where they start. This is in sharp contrast to single family homes and two-flats where over half of all fires spread to multiple rooms.
  • Multifamily fires are more likely in the winter, peaking in early January.

That average cost of damage and lost property is on the level when compared with my own study of 100 GoFundMe campaigns for victims of apartment fires from September 2016. That study found that the average amount sought by these campaigns was roughly $11,500 while the average amount received was about $6000. Given that renters tend to have fewer valuable belongings than owners, the $4k difference between the national estimated damage and the reality on GoFundMe makes sense.

So based on all of these numbers here's my rough guess. If you are a Chicago renter you have about a 0.08% chance that your apartment will catch on fire this year. If it catches fire you're in for a loss of about $11k but you probably won't die or get injured. If you're a man you have a substantially higher chance of injury or death but it's still a very low chance across the board. But the numbers only tell part of the story.

Most of the grief over the fire at Notre Dame was related not to the damage of a religious site but the loss of the countless works of art and relics of historic importance that were housed within. If your apartment catches fire you're also going to be dragged through that swamp of grief. You're going to lose valuable items. You may lose a pet. You will definitely need to find substitute housing, possibly for months. You may become the target of an arson investigator. Fires tend to happen when events are occurring in our lives that make us depart from our normal routines. Many of the fires I read about during my GoFundMe research happened in the run-up to weddings or shortly after the birth of a child. Given the prevalence of cooking fires, many probably occur during major family gatherings such as Thanksgiving or the 4th of July. The emotional impact of a fire during such an event can't be underestimated.

All this is to say, even if the stats make the chance of apartment fires very low you still need to be aware of the steps your landlord has taken to mitigate fire damage and make it easy for tenants to get out if the worst case scenario becomes today's schedule.

Common Fire Hazards in Rental Housing

Based on my experience, here's some major fire hazards you might encounter in an apartment building.

  • Apartments with only one route from inside to the street.
  • Common hallways or porch stairwells cluttered with debris, shoes or bikes.
  • Rusty fire escapes or fire escapes covered in bird droppings.
  • Empty ceiling mounts for smoke detectors.
  • Common area smoke detectors that make the "dying battery" beep for a long time.
  • Fire doors propped open. If a building has multiple apartments on a floor joined by a common hallway, that hallway should have fire doors separating it from the stairwells.
  • Hallway fire extinguishers with expired tags.
  • Apartment exterior doors with large gaps between the door and the frame or floor.
  • Stoves, ovens or range hoods with heavy grease coating. Given that cooking is the main cause of multifamily fires it is imperative that renters keep their stoves clean.
  • Burn marks on electric outlets.
  • Excessively warm laundry room, huge amounts of lint in dryer screens or piled around the exhaust ducts, or dryers that take much longer than they should.
  • Trash bins or dumpsters without lids.
  • A large amount of cigarette butt litter.
  • Parking area/garage immediately adjacent to the building with no fire break for burning vehicles.
  • Grills on wood porches.
  • Working wood-burning fireplaces or heating appliances.
  • Kerosene heaters.
  • Circuit breakers taped in the "on" position.
  • Fuse boxes with clearly oversized fuses.
  • Insufficient smoke detectors per apartment.

Certain events and scenarios make fires far more likely to occur. During these events you need to be particularly alert, since even if you're not involved your neighbors might be. Some events that could make fire more likely include:

  • Building renovations.
  • Moving in or out.
  • Major holidays with a lot of cooking or fireworks.
  • Parties.
  • Major life events such as weddings or birthdays.
  • Elderly neighbors.
  • Neighbors who tend to drink or get high a lot.
  • Neighbors who smoke or cook (both definitions) more than normal.
  • The first nice warm days of the year. The first time you start a grill each year is a little risky.
  • Neighbors doing car repairs on site.
  • Power outages.

High rises have special considerations given their size, the population density and the distance occupants must travel to escape. Larger buildings and nearly all condo buildings should have common area fire extinguishers. High rises of 7 stories or more should have sprinkler systems although some very old high rises do not. Larger buildings should have emergency common area lighting systems and maps pointing to fire exits. The best high rises have a clearly visible fire alarm communications panel clearly visible in the lobby close to the front door so that first responders can quickly locate fires within the building. Elevators should immediately go to the nearest floor and then shut down in the event that a fire alarm is pulled.

Of course not every fire hazard is obvious to someone who's visiting for a showing or even for someone who lives in the building. It's worth asking around before you sign a lease or even if you're a long time resident who's worried about fire risks in the building. Ask when the dryer vents were last cleaned. Ask if there are smokers in the building. Ask what tenants should do if a hallway smoke detector is running out of battery life. Ask how old the wiring is. Ask when the furnaces were last cleaned. Head down to the local fire house and ask if there have been any recent fires in the building or its immediate vicinity. You'll probably need to know where that fire house is when applying for renter's insurance anyhow. Bring snacks.

Planning for Fire

Nearly everyone has heard of the concept of the "go bag", a bag or case full of the most important items you would need to take with you in case of an emergency home evacuation. For renters, this go bag should definitely include a copy of the lease and a copy of your renters insurance policy.

If you have battery operated smoke detectors in your apartment always keep a set of replacements on hand and change the batteries twice a year. Many folks like to do this at the same times that they change their clocks for daylight savings.

Another good idea is to stage fire drills for your family or roommates just like you used to have in school and the college dorms. Don't go pulling the fire alarm for the building or anything crazy. Just practice getting out together, meeting up outside, and grabbing everything you would need with the possible exception of pets. If your building has multiple fire exits make sure to include each route in your personal fire drills in case your standard route is blocked by flames or smoke. It might be a lot of work to take the stairs out of a high rise apartment building, but if you ever have to do it for real you'll be grateful for the practice runs.

Discussing Fire Hazards with Landlords and Property Managers

As most renters and property managers know, some landlords are less receptive to repair requests than others. Some stingy landlords will even refuse to fix fire hazards, given the enormous premiums most of them pay for fire insurance on each property. One must remember that in most cases a large part of the value of a property is in the land that a building stands on rather than the building itself.

That being said, most landlords do not want to run the risk of someone dying on their property due to negligence. Pretty much every property manager will understand the need to resolve obvious fire hazards on a property in their custody. So if you notice a fire hazard, it's definitely proper to first start by reporting it to the building manager or, if there isn't one, reporting it to the landlord directly. Keep records of all of your attempts to communicate the problem. It may help to get some of your neighbors on board. Even neighbors from other buildings might be interested, since fires can spread from building to building. Landlords who don't listen to their own tenants will sometimes listen to homeowners who live on the same block, if only to save face and reputation.

In an ideal world, tenants would be able to report ongoing neglect of known fire hazards to a landlords insurance provider, but such things are not possible. It is nearly impossible to find out the insurance carrier for any particular building without a subpoena. But the city of Chicago takes a very dim view of ongoing fire hazards. This is, after all, the city that burned. If your landlord fails to do anything about an obvious fire hazard, you should definitely rat them out to the city inspectors.

The fires of the past week were a shock to many of us around the world. Sometimes it takes a major event of this nature to make us pause and consider the similar risks we face in our own lives. With Pesach and Easter this month and Ramadan just around the corner next month, many of us will be going through phases of our lives that jolt us out of our normal habits, those same phases that tend to coincide with accidents and catastrophes. Use the fires at Notre Dame and Al-Aqsa as a catalyst and talking point to improve fire safety in your own home, and encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same.

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Published by

Kay Cleaves