The discovery of fire is considered a major turning point in man's evolution from cave dweller to outer space explorer. Control of fire allowed early man warmth for his habitat, a way to cook his meals, and light for his surroundings. Fire also provided a means to frighten away predators and introduced a social element by bringing other humans together in a communal setting.
Harnessed and used for good, fire remains a wonderful tool for progress—but when out of control, flames are a deadly, devastating force. It is mankind’s best friend and fiercest enemy.
Fighting Fire …
The history of firefighting is probably as old as the element itself, but organized firefighting can be traced back to ancient Egypt where hand-operated pumps and bucket brigades were first employed to extinguish runaway flames.
Hand pumps and buckets were the state of the art in firefighting until 1672, when Dutch inventor Jan Van der Heiden invented the fire hose. Van der Heiden’s design was constructed of flexible leather coupled with brass fittings every 50 feet. The design was so perfect that the length and connections still remain the industry standard today.
The first fire engine appeared on the scene in 1725 and is attributed to Richard Newsham of London, England. Teams of men were employed to operate the manual pumps on specially designed horse-drawn carts when fire broke out. These early engines could deliver up to 160 gallons per minute at up to 120 feet in distance.
In this country, devastating fires in Jamestown and Boston inspired citizens to take greater measures towards combating fires. By 1648, Fire Wardens were appointed to patrol most cities— specifically to inspect chimneys, where most fires started. If fire was spotted during the night watches, the wardens would rouse the citizens to form bucket brigades. Wooden chimneys and thatched roofs were eventually outlawed, and heavy fines levied on non-compliant citizens.
The first volunteer fire company in America, the Union Fire Company was created by Benjamin Franklin in 1736 in Philadelphia. George Washington was also a volunteer firefighter with the Friendship Veterans Fire Engine Company in Alexandria, Virginia. In fact, Washington bought and donated Alexandria’s first fire engine.
By 1850, full-time firefighters were employed in most cities, but even after the formation of paid fire companies, there were disagreements and fights over territories. The early fire companies were paid by insurance companies, and turf wars between responding units were common. Government-run fire departments first appeared around the time of the Civil War. Today, fire and rescue is often a mix of full-time paid, paid-on-call, and volunteer responders. Most major cities are served by large, paid, well trained firefighting teams.
We Didn't Start the Fire
The majority of residential fires are a result of careless actions and habits of residents and often, completely avoidable. Fire experts consistently cite unattended cooking as the most frequent culprit. Often residents will leave the kitchen for a television show or phone call, giving frying, grilling and boiling pans the perfect opportunity to start a fire. “This is typical when someone is heating up oil, the oil catches on fire and all of a sudden the cabinets are on fire and they may lose a big part of the house,” says Paul Buckley, fire chief in Needham, Massachusetts.
Other common causes of residential fires are space heaters overheating, children playing with matches and during the holidays, overloading of electrical circuits, says Stephen MacIntosh, deputy fire chief at the Cranston, Rhode Island Fire Department. He has seen residents add up to four or five extra plugs to an outlet, greatly increasing the chance of fire.
Fire Prevention in Multifamily Buildings
Fortunately, with careful actions and monitoring, most residential fires can be prevented. But fire prevention encompasses more than just turning off your stove or not throwing a lit cigarette in the trash; there are a few key practices that boards and residents should know and engage in.
Your first line of defense is fire alarms. Buckley says that management companies and staff have to regularly inspect and test their smoke detectors and fire alarm systems. “It’s mandatory here in Needham per state regulations as well as local bylaws, that they have to at least have annual inspections of their alarm system, and their smoke detectors, including any type of assisted living or nursing facility, even if it’s assisted living where you own your own condo,” he says.
Residents are usually responsible for the battery life of detectors inside their units and management needs to ensure that there are not only detectors inside the units fifteen feet from the doorways but also within the common hallways and on all levels.
Sprinkler systems, which are now a standard feature rather than an amenity in multifamily homes, are extremely valuable when it comes to fire prevention. “A fire sprinkler system protects lives and property by keeping fires small. Because the sprinkler system reacts so quickly, it can dramatically reduce the heat, flames, and smoke produced in a fire, allowing people more time to escape safely,” says Judy Comoletti, division manager of public education for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
An important part of fire prevention also includes proper property maintenance. Faulty wiring, aging hot water heaters, and air conditioning units can all contribute to fire hazards. The life safety systems including smoke alarms, sprinklers, and exit lightning must also be maintained and checked on a regular basis.
Buckley adds that it is imperative to keep all exits of the units and the building clear, so in the event of a fire, residents are not challenged with climbing over furniture, moving boxes or worst case, stuck behind doors or windows.
When developing a prevention/evacuation plan for the building, an excellent starting place for all boards would be with the local fire department. As in Needham, many fire departments will come out and present a seminar about fire safety and prevention. Buckley believes that this practice carries a bit more weight with residents than if it was the management company. “I think it sinks in a little more with the residents if they hear it from me or one of the fire inspectors or officers.”
MacIntosh adds, “And we don’t just talk about fire safety. We talk about general safety in the home because we have a mixed use of these residents from handicapped, physically handicapped to elderly in a lot of these properties. So there are things that we talk about that reach further than the fire code, such as trip hazards, being careful around the stove, don’t keep your matches and cigarettes out in the open where kids have access. So we reach out to the residents on a regular basis and try to instill just general safety in the home.”
In addition to your fire department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and NFPA have guidelines on how to establish the best evacuation plan.
And remember, one plan isn't enough. fire experts stress the importance of having at least two other evacuation options available in case your exits in Plan A become blocked or inaccessible. “Too many people that live in big complexes, they always park in the same parking lot, go in and out the same door and they’re not familiar with the rest of the complex. So, God forbid if there was a fire, and the doorway or the hallway that they normally use is blocked, they really need to know another way out,” Buckley says.
If there are residents requiring special assistance in the event of fire or other emergency, it is imperative to have an evacuation plan in place ahead of time. “People who may not be able to escape on their own need to have a plan to assist in their safe evacuation and management should know who may need assistance,” says Comoletti. “Include those who need assistance to plan how best to accommodate them. They will be able to provide input on the best methods for them to escape.”
She suggests installing an evacuation chair that can assist individuals with a mobility disability and providing instruction on how to use it. It is also important to consider residents with service animals, as they may need to have a special evacuation plan prepared for them. All circumstances that require special assistance can be discussed with the local fire department.
Then, it’s practice, practice, practice. Simply being aware of a plan won't help you in a fire, when emotions and anxiety are running high. Holding monthly or quarterly “fire drills” for your building can help residents identify exits and meeting areas first hand and learn how to escape quickly, should a real fire take place. “People panic in fires. So, if you get to a door and you couldn’t get out, and now all of a sudden you panic and don’t know another way out. We don’t want to see people jumping out windows, especially if a building is four or five stories tall,” Buckley says.
In Case of Fire
In the event of a fire, it is imperative that residents remain calm and try to identify the best and quickest exit strategy. “We wouldn’t always recommend on an evacuation initially if we have an alarm sounding. We recommend and this is what happens in our briefings with the residence and the management and one of the prior questions. We would say, “Hey, stay in your home. Don’t open the doors. Don’t peek out in the halls. If you do get back in and close the door” because nine times out of ten, the problem is a small problem. And we don’t need a lot of people treading the hallway utilizing stairs because now our elevators have been taken command by the fire service so they become inactive to the public. So now you’re going to have to navigate the stairs and I do have folks that have difficulty with that. I’d rather you stay put and we will come to you and help you move and move you when we need you to be moved. So that’s what we promote mostly. We would stay in the same place and we will help evacuate them when needed. In the smaller properties, occupants generally should just self-evacuate and hopefully they’d be out before we got there,” MacIntosh explains.
When possible, it’s best for residents to self-evacuate according to their building plan. The next step would be to meet outside in a designated area to account for everyone and if it was determined that neighbors are still inside, the fire department can then assist them in safely exiting the building.
In the event of fire, a resident should always feel the unit door before opening it to the common hallway. If the door is cool to the touch, the door may be opened slowly; if there is smoke present in the hallway the door should be closed immediately. A wet bath towel may be placed firmly along the inside of the door, and the fire department should be called immediately. A resident may then open a window and have a towel or scarf to signal the location of the unit and alert the fire and rescue team.
If the door is cool to the touch and there is no smoke, a resident may move quickly but safely to the designated fire exit. MacIntosh urges residents to close doors to the unit in order to keep the fire from spreading from one unit to another. Leaving a door open allows fire and smoke to travel much quicker and can obstruct a potential exit for another resident, he says.
It may be necessary to crawl or stay low, and visibility may be limited if smoke is encountered. A damp towel is excellent to protect your nose and mouth in the event of smoke. Any fire alarm box encountered along the exit route should be activated, to further alert both residents and rescue team members.
The level of community involvement desired in the planning and preparation for emergency action will ultimately be a board decision. However, once those plans are in place all residents should be made aware of the details by the accepted method of community communication. Updates and reviews should occur on a regular basis in order to ensure the health, safety and peace of mind of both residents and board members.
Anne Childers is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium. Editorial Assistant Maggie Puniewska contributed to this article.