By Daniel Arce, MTFI / Published May 2020
The majority of fires are in residential buildings. This article is designed to assist you in getting accurate, actionable information. If followed, this information could make a difference and possibly save lives because the scariest sounds you never want to hear, especially at 2:13 a.m., are the building alarm going off followed by shouts of Fire! FIRE! FIRE!
If you live in an apartment building, especially a high-rise, we hope you will be concerned, informed, and proactive because things happen!
Many consider a high-rise building as anything over 75 feet or about seven stories. Your local fire departments may consider a building a high-rise based upon how it affects evacuation. It may simply depend on how high their ladders can reach. For many large departments, under ideal circumstances their longest ladder truck can reach about six stories, and that’s if their truck can get close enough to the building to extend its full length. With the way many condominiums are built and their site placement, there is no way a ladder can reach even that high. Check your building, walk all around, and consider its limitations. Is it built on a hill; are any sides inaccessible; can a large truck drive up close to it; are there trees or closed walkways, etc., blocking access? These are important factors to keep in mind.
Because of strong fire and building codes, high-rise buildings are designed to be compartmentalized. The spaces are built like small, fire-resistant boxes, with fire-rated doors to contain small fires, providing that they are all used and maintained for the job they are engineered for. To meet code, fire-rated doors must be closed or close automatically in the event of a fire. Open doors can’t stop fire, smoke, heat, or noxious gases. Sprinklers are wonderful, and they are the number one way to protect the building in the event of a fire. A small fire can usually be easily controlled if there are sprinklers in that area. Does your building have sprinklers?
In the event of a fire, do you know what the emergency plan is for your building? Are you supposed to stay in place or run for the exits? If you don’t know what the fire plan is, ask the building manager or the local fire authorities. If the problem is not in your unit; you are in a fire protected area; your condominium has fire-rated walls, ceilings, and floors; and your unit’s entrance doors are designed to protect you safely from fire and smoke—then you will stay in place. Usually this will be for a minimum of 20 minutes, which may sound like a short amount of time but is actually enough time to give rescue personnel time to reach you. However, don’t forget to call 911 and tell them where you are! The second plan is to leave.
If the fire plan is to evacuate, make it your responsibility to be aware of the emergency fire exits because those stairwells are your and your loved ones’ only means out of the building, as the elevators will be shut down.
The first thing to know is how far from your apartment are the stairwells, and in what direction are they? It’s good to know how many doors from your unit in each direction the stairwells are because you may not be able to clearly see or walk there. You may have to crawl, and if you know it is eight doors to your right, you would know how far you have to go.
Another thing you should be aware of is the condition of the path leading down the stairs and whether each path is clear of debris or not. Does it contain storage items (bikes, boxes, etc.), which might block a clear passage? Remember, this is your way out, so you want the path to be clear. When an alarm sounds is not the time to find out that there is a problem.
Take into consideration if you and every occupant in your unit are mobile, and can everyone use the stairwell? If not, do you have a contingency plan in place? Have you informed the management of any evacuation limitations you have? Management should add the information to their emergency information list, for the fire department.
Most fires start as a small occurrence, so you should have a decent “ABC” rated fire extinguisher handy and know how to handle it, turn it on, and put out a small fire. If you can’t put it out in a minute or two, then leave it to the professionals as small fires can turn into an inferno in minutes. Don’t hesitate to get out because many of the furnishings are made up of materials that are very flammable and create noxious gases. Get out as fast as possible and make sure your door is closed behind you. Pull the fire alarm!
As stated earlier, your unit’s entrance doors are fire rated; the law requires it to close on its own. It must work, so that every time you come into the apartment the door closes and latches. If it doesn’t, inform management. Also, it has been found that if you sleep in your bedroom with your door closed, then you are safer from smoke. There’s a campaign that says “Close Before You Doze”—it saves lives.
Are you aware that ALL fire, smoke, and egress doors in your building are required to be inspected and tested at least annually? Have your doors been tested? If you’re not sure, you should ask your manager. You might want to check the doors on your floor. Walk down the stairway to the exit and be observant, as this could be critical when it comes to a means of exiting the building. Frequently during our company’s fire door inspections, our inspectors find doors that were very hard to open due to rust, broken hinges, dragging on the floor, blockage from debris, being chained open, etc. Remember, it only takes one malfunctioning door to allow fire, smoke, or gases to block a hallway or compromise an entire stairwell. Your proactive involvement could save lives; and you don’t want to find out that there is a problem when a fire alarm goes off!
Please keep yourself informed as things happen! This, of course, is not a complete fire protection program, but it’s designed to make you “aware, concerned, and proactive” because your life and the lives of those you love and your neighbors may be at stake. It’s never too late to start paying attention to a few simple potential “life-altering” fire prevention systems that are all around you.
Daniel Arce, MTFI
CEO, National Firedoor LLC
Daniel Arce, MTFI, is the CEO of National Firedoor LLC. He has been in fire door and related construction for more than 25 years. His experience led him to be a pioneer in the field of fire code compliance—fire, smoke, and egress door inspection. National Firedoor is one of North America’s fastest-growing inspection firms, conducting inspections in every type of building, and is currently building a nationwide operation. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.