Condo & Apartment Fire Safety

condo fire safety

Fire safety and prevention are important no matter where you live. However, if you live in a high-rise, mid-rise or even a low-rise condo building, there are specific considerations you will have to make when creating an escape plan. Don’t wait until you are in a fire emergency to think about your escape route! Create a plan with your household and practice evacuating your unit twice a year. Smoke can make it difficult to see your escape path, so practice is necessary to help you stay oriented when you can’t rely on your vision. A fire can destroy a condo unit in a matter of minutes, so exiting the building as quickly as possible is key to avoiding tragedy. 

General Fire Prevention

Some fire prevention tips are applicable to everyone, no matter what kind of building you live in. Regularly inspect your outlets and cords on your electrical devices for frays, loose wires, or other signs of damage. Unplug electronics when not in use or use a surge protector. Be sure to clean the lint filter in your clothes dryer and avoid running it or other heat-generating appliances when you aren’t home or after you go to bed.

Candle Fire Safety

Candles and cigarettes are two common causes of fires. Never leave a burning candle unattended, and If there’s a power outage, opt for flashlights instead of candles. Be careful to keep lit candles away from papers, curtains, clothes, or other flammable materials. If you smoke, do so outside and away from anything flammable. When you’re done, make sure the cigarette is completely extinguished before throwing it away. If you have children or pets, keep all candles, matches, and lighters out of reach. 

Kitchen Fire Safety

Prevent fires from starting in your kitchen by ensuring your oven and stovetop are off when you leave the house. Store cooking oil away from heat sources. Grease fires can be especially dangerous, so if you're cooking and your oil begins to smoke, turn the heat off to keep it from igniting. If cooking oil does catch fire, do not throw water on it! Instead, cover the pan with a lid or baking sheet and wait for the fire to go out before moving the pan. If the fire has spread out of the pan but is still small, you can smother the flames with salt or baking soda. Don’t use flour or baking powder, as these materials will only add fuel to the flames. For larger grease fires, you can use a class B or ABC fire extinguisher. If you live in a condo, your unit must have a functioning fire extinguisher. Familiarize yourself with its location before you need it. If the fire gets out of hand, call 911 or your local fire department.

National Home Security Alliance: Fire prevention tips 
Lincoln County: How to put out a grease fire
FEMA: Choosing and using fire extinguishers

Condo Fire Prevention

Smoke Alarms

Smoke alarms are vital as an early warning of a fire. Install smoke alarms in every bedroom, outside every sleeping area, and on every level. Interconnected smoke alarms are a great choice because if one goes off, they all go off. That way if a fire starts far away from the bedrooms in the middle of the night, there is a greater chance of being awakened by the alarm. Once a smoke alarm goes off you have only two minutes to evacuate, so even saving a few seconds is worth it. Be sure to test your smoke alarms twice a year. A good way to remember is to test your alarms when you change your clocks for daylight savings time.

If you live in a condo building, your property manager should maintain the fire alarm system and fire sprinklers. But how do you know if a building's systems have been properly maintained? Bonita Springs, FL Fire Marshal Janet Washburn gave me some great advice to pass along to potential condo buyers: “It is a good idea to ask the local fire department if there are any open fire violations on the building they are interested in purchasing. Some buildings are more diligent than others in maintaining their fire protection systems. Maintenance of these systems is very important. Fire alarm systems and fire sprinkler systems, etc, are required to be inspected annually to ensure they will work properly when needed.”

Sprinklers

If you are looking for a new condo, you want to consider moving into a building with a sprinkler system. Highrise buildings are more likely to be fully sprinklered than other types of buildings. A sprinkler system will prevent a fire from spreading throughout the building, and help protect your life and property if a fire starts in a neighbor’s unit. Contrary to popular belief, fire sprinklers are not triggered by smoke, so don’t worry about setting them off accidentally if you burn something in the oven. If you’re concerned about possible water damage, know that fire sprinklers will only go off in areas where they’re needed, and any water damage will be extremely minor compared to the damage a fire or fire-extinguishing chemicals can do.

Grill Safety

Grills and barbecues are an integral part of summertime in America! But if you live in a condo building, grilling can be hazardous. According to FEMA, 24% of residential grill fires start on balconies and unenclosed porches. In fact, it is against many fire codes to use a grill on or under an apartment or condo balcony, or within 10 feet of any structure. Many condo associations will have even more stringent regulations regarding grills, but most also provide designated grilling areas that are a safe distance from the building.

FEMA: Grilling fact sheet
NFPA: Smoke alarm installation

Condo Fire Preparedness

How to Make an Escape Plan if You Live in a Condo

Even if you do everything correctly to prevent fires, they can still sometimes happen. That’s why it is important to have an escape plan and to practice it regularly with your household. If you have children, involve them in helping to create the plan. Test your smoke alarms with them so they know what they sound like. Have them walk with you through your unit and identify all doors, windows, and fire escapes they could use in an emergency. Walk through the building and identify any alternate routes you can take if your main exit is blocked by fire or smoke. Remember that you cannot use elevators during a fire.

When planning your escape route, make sure the floor is free from debris and clutter that could slow you down in an emergency. Alert your building manager to remove any hazards in common areas. Check that doorways are clear and doors and windows are able to be opened. Ask your building manager if there is a designated meeting area for the building in the event of an evacuation. If there isn’t, decide on a safe meeting place with your household. Small children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and pets may require extra help in evacuating. Make sure someone is designated to help them in an emergency.

NFPA: How to make a fire escape plan
NFPA: Highrise fire safety

What to do in a Condo Fire

If there is a fire, don’t panic, but exit the building as quickly as possible. If the fire is not in your unit, feel the front door before you open it. If the door is cool, proceed out of the building through whatever exit has the least amount of fire and smoke. Pull a fire alarm on your way out to alert your neighbors and the fire department. Close doors behind you to slow down the spread of fire. You may need to crouch down to get under the smoke. Once you are out of the building, go to the designated safe meeting place. If you have people in your household who are unable to crouch below the smoke or go down the stairs, they may be safer waiting for rescue in the condo unit. If someone is unable to make it to the meeting place, call the fire department to alert them that someone is trapped inside.

If you are unable to leave your unit due to the fire or a disability, you can “seal” yourself into a room. First, go to a room with a window, closing all doors between you and the fire. Call the fire department to let them know exactly where you are. Use duct tape or stuff wet cloth into vents and cracks around the door to prevent smoke from getting into the room. You can open the window to allow fresh air in, but be ready to close it quickly if smoke blows in. If you can, hang a bright-colored cloth outside your window, or shine a flashlight outside to alert firefighters to your presence.

NFPA: Highrise fire safety fact sheet

What to do After a Condo Fire

Once you are safely outside the burning building, call 911. Get medical attention for yourself or others if necessary. Even if you are not burned, you could have lung damage from toxic smoke. Check to see if your pets need veterinary care. Call friends and family to let them know you’re OK. Don’t go back inside until the fire department says it is safe. 

The fire department will let you know if it is safe to re-enter your condo. Depending on the circumstances, you may need to find temporary lodging. If you have children or pets, you should find care for them to keep them safe when you eventually go back into the damaged unit. Food and other items not directly burned in the fire need to be thrown away due to smoke damage or contamination from toxic chemicals used to put out the fire. 

Call your insurance company to report the damage. Your insurance company will also have information about what you should do and who you should call to clean up. You may need to replace documents like driver’s licenses, passports, and birth certificates. Try to find as many of these important documents as you can. Save any receipts for money spent due to the fire so you can prove the losses on your income tax. 

Surviving a fire is a traumatic experience, and rebuilding and recovering from the damage can be a stressful ordeal. Be sure to take care of your mental and emotional well-being by getting plenty of sleep, eating healthy meals, and drinking enough water. Stay connected to friends and family, and reach out to a mental health professional if you need to. A fire can be a particularly distressing event for children, so keep an eye on them for any changes in behavior that may warrant professional help. Agencies like the Red Cross may be able to provide additional support. You can call or text the Disaster Distress Helpline 24/7 at 1-800-985-5990.

Red Cross: After a fire
Red Cross: More Resources 
Red Cross: Emotional recovery

Condo Fire Safety in Hurricane-Prone Areas

Coastal areas have unique challenges when it comes to fire safety. High winds, lightning strikes, and storm surge flooding can cause fires, but thankfully, major fire damage is preventable!

How do Hurricanes Affect Fire Safety?

Though it sounds a little bit counter-intuitive, water damage and flooding from a hurricane can lead to fires. According to Fire Marshal Washburn, “With hurricanes come potential storm surge and flooding of electrical systems in homes and buildings. When you have a waterlogged condo or home due to recent flooding, best practices are to turn off the main breaker before the power comes back on. Then a licensed electrician should evaluate the property before turning the power back on. Otherwise, unknown electrical hazards may exist due to salt water corroding electrical wiring and components."

"There may be dangerous issues with submerged electric vehicles that have flooded. Salt water may potentially damage low and high-voltage components. The saltwater from flooding may interact with the lithium-ion batteries in a negative manner and cause an electrical short once the vehicle is no longer submerged. Lithium batteries, if on fire, require much more water to suppress than your average fire with ordinary combustibles. When a hurricane is in the forecast it is recommended to park electric vehicles in a high and dry area so they do not become submerged.

NFPA: Submerged Hybrid/Electric Vehicles

Hurricane Shutters and Impact Glass

Local building codes have varying requirements related to hurricane shutters and impact glass depending on the occupancy type. You may be wondering if these safety features make it more difficult for firefighters to break into a window in an emergency. I asked Fire Marshal Washburn how hurricane shutters and impact glass affect fire safety, and she assured me the fire department is equipped with "K12 Type saws with special blades that allow us to cut through either impact glass or hurricane shutters. As a result impact glass and hurricane shutters are no longer an issue.”  Most new and newer condos offer impact glass. 

Greater Naples Fire Rescue: Hurricane shutter fire safety

Do Highrise Condos Have Safety Features That Lowrise Condos Don't?

According to Fire Marshal Washburn, “Newer highrise condos are actually very safe. Before Florida adopted the 2001 Florida Fire Prevention Code as a result of Hurricane Andrew, highrise multi-family buildings in Florida were required to be built with either complete or partial automatic fire sprinkler systems. Additional fire protection requirements include fire alarm and smoke control systems and 2-hour fire-rated stairwells. Fire alarm systems give residents in the building early notification to evacuate, while the 2-hour fire-rated stairwells provide a compartmentalized, tenable environment free of smoke in conjunction with the smoke control system. All this is occurring while the sprinkler systems are suppressing and/or extinguishing the fire. Other types of multi-family buildings are not required to install the same level of passive fire protection features. All new multi-family buildings greater than three units are required to install a fire sprinkler system."

Special Thanks to Fire Marshal Janet Washburn   
Janet Washburn Fire Safety Bonita Springs

On 10/12/22 I was lucky enough to interview Janet Washburn who is currently the Fire Marshal of the Bonita Springs Fire Control District. Janet’s qualifications are impressive, to say the least. She started her career as a volunteer and then became a firefighter & paramedic. She then became a senior plan reviewer supervising an office of 9 fire inspectors. She was president of a Fire Inspector Association and was also on the board of directors for The Certified Fire Protection Specialist Board. Janet is currently an alternate member of the following committees of the National Fire Protection Association: NFPA 1 Fire Code Technical Committee, NFPA 101 Technical Committee on Assembly Occupancy, and NFPA 25 Technical Committee. Janet is also a member of the Florida Fire Code Interpretations Committee, and the FFMIA Legislative Committee

With all these qualifications Janet was the perfect person to interview as it relates to fire safety in condo buildings here in Bonita Springs, Naples, and Estero.

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About the Author

Sean Lorch Naples Realtor