SF Apartment : September 2016


Flame Wars

by Eric Gacutan

With the proper maintenance and fire-safety information, landlords and tenants can work together to prevent apartment fires.

Landlords and property managers surely know that putting out figurative fires is a part of the daily job description. However, preventing actual fires is something property owners can and should do. The top five causes of fires (and what you can do to prevent them) in multifamily and single-family buildings are detailed in this article.

Cooking Fires
Cooking is the number one cause of multifamily building fires. According to an article from P3 Insurance, more than half of all multifamily building fires are caused by cooking; they account for five times as many fires as the number two cause. Cooking fires can usually be attributed to two things: grease and negligence.

Grease fires are extremely dangerous. Because grease is a liquid, it can spread quickly, across countertops and down cabinets, for example. Grease can accumulate over time on stovetops, ovens, fryers, and range hoods. Emphasize to your tenants how important it is to keep their cooking surfaces clean. Once accumulated grease gets hot enough, it can ignite quickly. It should also be emphasized that water should never be used to extinguish a grease fire because the liquid will actually assist in spreading the fire. The best ways to extinguish a grease fire is to turn off the source of the heat (the burner); pour a large amount of baking soda on the fire, depending on the size of the fire; smother the fire with a clean pot or pan or lid; and if the grease fire is extremely large, spray a Class B dry fire extinguisher. Putting out a grease fire quickly and safely is crucial in preventing the fire from spreading.

We recently worked on a property where a woman was frying fish in her apartment and apparently did not clean her stovetop of previously existing grease. The grease heated up and caught fire. The woman poured water on the fire to put it out, but instead caused the fire to spread to her cabinets.

Property owners can significantly reduce the chances of grease fires with proper maintenance. Ensure that stovetops, ovens, fryers, and range hoods are free of grease by regularly inspecting and cleaning cooking areas. Purchase a degreaser (Zep Degreaser or Simple Green Degreaser, for example), which either tenants or maintenance staff can use to clean affected areas. Make sure to have plenty of fire extinguishers in each unit in or near the kitchen.

Negligence and human error also contribute to cooking fires. All too often my company is called to clean up the damage after a fire that started because the tenants fell asleep while their food was cooking, forgot to turn off the stove or oven after they finished cooking, or left the apartment while their food was cooking. While it would be amazing if we could remove human error from these equations, the realty is that this is unavoidable. Human error and negligence will always be a cause of cooking fires. The best way to safeguard your buildings and tenants is to provide them with fire extinguishers and proper fire safety information.

Arson and Unattended Fires
Arson is the second most common cause of apartment fires, and unattended fires are the third most common cause. According to P3 Insurance, one-tenth of apartment fires are due to arson and unattended fires. Unfortunately, there isn’t much landlords can do to prevent criminal arson. Accidental arson and unattended fires, however, are things landlords can help prevent.

Accidental arson and unattended fires can be prevented or at least reduced with proper education and common sense. For example, young children should never be left alone and matches and lighters should always be stored out of their reach. Inform and educate your potential and existing tenants of fire safety and best practices. We recommend that landlords go over with tenants all fire safety precautions before they move in.

According to P3 Insurance, smoking fires are statistically the most dangerous type of accidental arson: while only 8 percent of apartment fires are due to smoking, 35 percent of all apartment fire deaths are due to smoking. Smoking fires can occur when a tenant falls asleep while smoking in bed or near flammable items.

We were once called after an elderly tenant fell asleep while smoking. He was saved, but he suffered first degree burns, and his belongings were completely destroyed. Property managers should consider making their buildings and units smoke-free. Include the proper verbiage in your lease agreement and make sure all tenants are aware that the building is a smoke-free building. Additionally, consider designating an official smoking area for your tenants that is far away enough from the building that it will not be a fire hazard—the idea here is to prevent tenants from smoking in their units despite the no-smoking policy.

Candles should also be considered as they have the same statistics as smoking fires. Just like smoking, people fall asleep before putting out candles. One case we worked on was a college property. The power went out and the students who lived in one of the units lit candles. The damage that resulted from the candles—mixed with alcohol consumption—was catastrophic. While it may not be realistic for property managers to prevent their tenants from using candles altogether, they can certainly educate them as to the potential fire hazards they create. Whether tenants are using candles for light in the winter or to help themselves relax, encourage them to light candles only with extreme caution. Consider providing tenants with flashlights and batteries so they have an alternative light source in the event of a power outage.

The fourth most common cause of apartment fires is heating. Because we now have central heating and air, the occurrence of this type of fire has gone down. However, older buildings, like those commonly seen throughout San Francisco, without central heating are at greater risk. Owners of older buildings should educate their maintenance staff and tenants about the dangers that lurk with space heaters. Space heaters are great when used correctly and safely; they are convenient, portable, and very handy. However, when they are not used properly, they can be very dangerous. When space heaters are left unsupervised nearby flammable items, such as blankets, curtains, sheets, tablecloths, and clothing, they can create a hazardous environment.

Property managers of older buildings should make sure their tenants know how to properly use space heaters, that they don’t plug them in near flammable items (whether supervised or unsupervised), that they don’t run them while they are asleep, and that they don’t use broken or malfunctioning space heaters. While it’s impossible to monitor each and every tenant, the more involved landlords are when it comes to fire safety, the more secure their buildings and those who live in them will be.

Electricity and Outlet Overcrowding
The fifth most common cause of apartment fires is electrical issues. While tenants need to be aware that overloading outlets, using extension cords, and using surge protectors are fire hazards, property owners must make sure their buildings meet electrical code. Update and replace old wiring to prevent overloading an outlet. Routinely inspect buildings for old sockets and electrical cords and for misuse of electrical outlets. Electrical fires can almost always be prevented if the proper care and maintenance are in place.

As for your tenants, check in with them regularly and have them report any electrical issues, especially burning or other odd smells coming from electrical equipment. If this occurs, make sure to unplug said equipment and have it either serviced by a professional or replaced. Make sure your tenants know not to overload outlets and power strips, and to keep an eye on old and faulty electrical cords.

In closing, property owners must perform proper maintenance to ensure the safety of their tenants and buildings. Follow best practices in the maintenance of cooking appliances, heating elements, and electrical systems. In additional to fire prevention, property owners also need to be prepared for an actual fire. Clearly mark fire exits and keep them and fire escapes clear. However, no matter how much precaution a landlord takes, there will always be the element of human error. The best way to safeguard against human error is to provide tenants with thorough fire-safety information.

Figurative fires will always exist but actual fires are avoidable. Like Smokey Bear says, only you can prevent fires.

Eric Gacutan is the Business Development Manager with Water Damage Recovery. He has over five years of restoration experience and has previously worked as an operations manager, field supervisor, and lead technician. He can be contacted at 510-520-1744 or by email at EricG@waterdamagerecovery.net.