Written By: Sarah Block, Director of Marketing & Education
A property fire is devastating in many ways. When a fire sparks in a residential property, there is the potential for a loss of life, property, and insurmountable financial costs. In one event, a property owner and his property manager were hit with all three when a fire started in fifty-nine year old Harry Simpson's apartment and moved quickly. It destroyed the building, the neighboring building, and killed Simpson; Robert Thomas, 31; Bernice Suerez, 33; and Jermaine Allen, 37. Thomas' mother filed a lawsuit against the property owner, property manager, and the city of Schenectady. The lawsuit claims that all three parties were aware of dangerous and hazardous conditions of the building. That building also happened to be inspected the day before the fire. The inspector found that the only issue was an expired fire alarm system certification.
That is just one of many examples of property managers getting sued due to a fire in a residential building that they manage. Keep tenants safe and protect the property by truly understanding the property's residential population and become familiar with fire hazards and how to prevent them.
Common Residential Fire Hazards & Their Remedy
The most common causes of residential fire are cooking, smoking, heating, and electrical issues. Preventing fires first starts with ensuring the building is safe.
To prevent smoking-related fires, have a property rule that bans smoking in and around the building. While not everyone may comply, if the rule is in the tenant lease, it releases the guilt from the property if a smoking-related fire ignites. It will also attract tenants who do not smoke, so the odds of a smoking-related fire go down.
To prevent heating and electrical related fires, regularly inspect heating equipment and chimneys. Resolve any issues that come up in inspections.
As a property manager, it's important to know the city's fire and building codes. Generally, project managers can find those codes on the city website. If not there, the local building department will have a copy of the codes. It is to a property manager and tenant's benefit to be vigilant about keeping up with codes. Property managers will save on code citations and keep the property and tenants safe.
To conduct a fire and safety inspection, follow this checklist.
Make sure every unit and common area has working fire and smoke alarms in all required areas.
Look for flammable materials near heaters.
Look for faulty wiring.
Check clothes dryer vents for lint build up.
Inspect heating sources.
Make sure each unit's kitchen has a working fire extinguisher.
Inform tenants of important fire safety information.
Understand the Best Communication for Your Tenant Population
Tenants hold much of the responsibility when it comes to fire safety. To inform tenants of important fire safety information, project managers need to know who their tenant population is. Are they at a higher risk for fire-related injuries? Do they require a unique form of communication, so they fully understand the information?
According to the NFPA, the populations that are most likely to die in a fire are immigrants, older adults, young children, people with disabilities, and low-income families. Tom Lia, executive director of the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board said, "Individuals in high-risk categories may have trouble comprehending a fire and may not be able to escape a fire on their own." Property Managers need to communicate the best way possible for their audience.
Immigrants and non-English speaking citizens might be difficult to communicate with because of a language barrier and fear of persecution. Property Managers will make better progress communicating with this population by approaching local organizations that work with immigrants and refugees. Property Managers can work with the organizations to plan a fire safety seminar in an environment their tenant feels safe with a language they understand.
Elderly populations are at a very high risk for dying in a fire. Every year, an average of 1,000 people over the age of 65 die in a fire. That number is three times higher in populations over eighty. Property Managers should conduct fire safety seminars in community centers or another social setting. If a property has a high elderly population, it should be equipped with all proper fire protection. Fire sprinklers are essential to contain a fire in case a resident is unable to escape unassisted.
Residents with physical, mental, or sensory disabilities are one of the greatest risk populations for fire. Property Managers should inform their residents where safety devices are located and help them understand an escape plan. Additionally, special fire protection equipment can be used. Smoke alarms with a vibrating pad and flashing lights could help people with sensory disabilities. An additional measure is a flashing fire alarm located outside the building; this could help inform neighbors to a fire.
Fire Safety Tips for Property Managers
Require tenants carry rental insurance.
Encourage tenants to report issues, even if it doesn't affect them.
Document everything. Take pictures before and after a tenant moves in/out. Document all rules in the lease.
Know fire and building codes; conduct inspections before a tenant moves in and document.
Ban indoor smoking
Inspect heating/chimneys and consider banning space heaters.
If you allow space heaters, make sure they are three feet from any combustibles and post safety tips.
Don't allow cords beneath rugs or carpets.
Inspect electrical wiring
Install and regularly test smoke/fire detectors
Prohibit cooking on balconies.
Post clear evacuation procedures.
Provide kitchen fire extinguishers
Property managers can protect their tenants, property, and themselves by making fire safety a priority. By clearly communicating fire safety rules and tips verbally and in writing, property managers have some control over the uncontrollable.