Updated: Apr 20
As part of the U.S. Fire Administration’s (USFA) focus on fire data collection, they’ve established what’s known as the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS): a voluntary reporting standard that fire departments use to uniformly report on the full range of their activities. So we actually know quite a bit about the cause of apartment fires.
A recent NFIRS report found that each year, “an estimated average of 106,700 multifamily residential building fires were reported to fire departments within the United States. These fires caused an estimated annual average of 400 deaths, 3,875 injuries and $1.7 billion in property loss.”
All residential building fires are a catastrophe, but apartment fires can be especially disastrous because of their potential to wreak havoc on the lives of so many in so short a time. Preventing these calamities is largely under human control so understanding the most common causes, and how to prevent them, is so important for residents and property managers.
The Top Causes of Apartment Fires
Other unintentional, careless 3.5%
Electrical malfunction 2.5%
Open flame 2.4%
Other heat 2.2%
Intentional 2.1% As you can see, at nearly three out of every four, most apartment fires come from cooking. Let’s dig into that.
Multifamily Complexes vs. One and Two-Family Buildings
Cooking is also the leading cause of fires in one and two-family residences, but not nearly at the same rate as in multifamily residences. In fact, at 74%, cooking fires in apartments account for double the share of fires compared to one and two-family residences (37%). While heating was the second leading cause of fires in apartment complexes, it accounted for a much smaller number of fires (at 4%) than in one-and two-family structures (12%).
There are at least a few reasons for this.
One is that multifamily buildings (e.g. apartments, town houses, row houses, and condominiums) are subject to a more rigorous set of building codes than one and two-family dwellings. There is also an emphasis on preventing electrical problems due to better construction materials and professional maintenance.
The use of central heating systems instead of fireplaces or chimneys in individual units also helps reduce the risk of fires in an apartment home. Central heating systems are professionally maintained and inspected regularly in order to help keep them running smoothly and safely.
Additionally, many larger multifamily apartments may also have additional fire safety features such as sprinkler systems and extra smoke detectors installed throughout the structure. These extra measures create an added layer of protection against both electrical problems and potential fires caused by cooking or heating sources.
Fire Safety Tips to Prevent Apartment Fires
Fire safety is an essential part of maintaining an apartment building and should be taken seriously. Following fire codes, installing fire safety systems—including alarms, smoke detectors, smoke alarm monitoring devices, a sprinkler system, fire extinguishers—and taking steps to educate tenants can save lives and property.
Adhere to Fire Codes
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has established a code that most of the laws in the country adhere to but fire codes vary from municipality to municipality and depending on the exact building type. Property owners or managers (particularly those of apartment communities) should take fire codes seriously.
Install Fire Alarms
A fire alarm can be critical in fire protection, especially in an apartment complex where large numbers of apartment dwellers need to be notified quickly in the case of an emergency. Specific requirements vary pretty widely so building management should ensure the building is up to code.
National Fire Protection Association has established a code that most of the laws in the country adhere to. You’ll want to consult all applicable fire codes for your specific property but, in general, alarms are typically required in places of assembly (e.g. churches, movie theaters), offices, and retail stores.
Provide and Maintain Smoke Detectors
Smoke detectors work when particles of smoke enter the device and activate an alarm and should be installed around each unit, including in every sleeping area. Many detectors today can work in tandem with other fire prevention devices such as alarms or smoke alarm monitoring devices to warn tenants of a fire, notify local authorities, and/or cut off power to the heat source.
Consider Smoke Alarm Monitoring Devices
Smoke alarm monitoring devices are one of the devices mentioned above. They are easy to install by plugging into an outlet behind a stove or oven and work by shutting off power to the appliance when smoke alarms are triggered. They’re great at keeping fires from spreading beyond the cooking area and preventing fires from spreading to the rest of the apartment home, saving you potentially millions in smoke and flame damage.
Install Fire Extinguishers
Having at least one fire extinguisher in every unit of an apartment building is key for fire safety, as they enable residents to effectively tackle fires before the fire department arrives. Each fire extinguisher should be mounted in easily visible and accessible locations around the building, preferably not higher than five feet off the ground.
Property owners of apartment buildings should make note of the different types of fire extinguishers available, and what each one should be used for:
Water = suitable to use on fires caused by liquid combustibles like paper, wood and cloth
Foam = class A and B fires
Carbon dioxide = used mainly for electrical equipment
Dry powder = all fire classes.
Furthermore, building management should ensure their building’s fire extinguishers are regularly inspected for efficiency and maintained in working condition in case an emergency arises.
As mentioned above, one of the reasons that fire data varies between one- and two-family homes compared to multifamily structures is that the fire prevention for larger complexes is largely handled by professionals. The lesson? A little knowledge goes a long way.
After seeing to the items listed above, you might consider providing tenants with additional resources so they’re prepared in the event of open flames. Fire drills may or may not be practical for your complex but printed materials provided at move-in or mounted inconspicuously within the unit (e.g. inside of kitchen cupboard doors) can provide information that will be helpful in the case of emergency. Even something as simple as providing a list of the most common causes of apartment fires could raise awareness and improve building safety.
To keep tenants safe and avoid property damage, fire safety must never be taken lightly.