When we moved into the 3rd floor of our old 1980s low-rise apartment, we noticed a few things:
- The fire safety regulations looked like they were written on a typewriter.
- The fire extinguisher cabinet out in the hall looked so old that it wouldn’t be out of place in the Soviet Union.
- It was a wooden framed building.
- There was no external fire escape staircase
So a thought went through our minds: Is this old apartment really that safe?
Our concerns were confirmed when we ran into a firefighter a few months later down at the pub.
When we told him where we lived, he didn’t note how nice the cafes were in the area. Or how close we were to the train station. No, his response:
“Those old 80s low-rises on 7th? Oh man, you guys better get yourselves a fire escape ladder.”
Well that was a little shocking.
So we did some research about apartment fire safety. And here’s what we found out.
Fire Safety Tips for Apartment Dwellers
1. Know your bylaws – and follow them!
The first and most important thing to remember is that there are already laws and regulations around how to prepare for and behave during a fire.
Your apartment is likely to have a set of regulations set out. Check your elevator or hallway for a list of fire emergency procedures. Make sure you read them and follow them.
There might also be city council laws that govern what you can and can’t do. These laws might require you to install a certain type of smoke detector, have a certain size fire extinguisher, or follow other rules regarding how to prepare for a fire.
These laws must always be followed – and take precedence over any general information we can provide here.
2. Know where the nearest fire alarm is on your floor.
Many large apartments have a fire alarm pull lever located in the public shared spaces. This is likely next to wherever the fire emergency procedures are listed. It is also often located next to a fire extinguisher, so if you look for a fire extinguisher, chances are you’ll also find the pull lever.
The lever will likely be large and red and have “pull here” written on the lever. Some are located under perspex covers to make sure they’re not accidentally activated.
In preparation for a fire, walk around your apartment and try to locate this lever (some apartments may not have one).
If there ever comes a time when you need to notify your neighbors that it’s time to evacuate for a fire, you’ll want to run out to pull the lever. Make sure you know where it is in advance so you’re not running around searching for it when time is of the essence.
3. Get a smoke detector.
Every apartment (every house & every building!) needs an active smoke detector.
Too many people (us included, in the past) deactivate their fire extinguisher if it gives too many false positives. If it’s too sensitive to burning toast or steam from the shower, don’t turn it off.
Instead, consider placing it somewhere that has better ventilation and isn’t quite so close to those items that trigger the false positives. You could also get a smoke detector like the Google Nest Protect which has SteamCheck technology to minimize false positives.
Once you’ve got a smoke detector, don’t forget to check it regularly. Ensure the batteries are working by triggering the test button once a month – it’s as simple as pressing the test button every now and then as you walk past the smoke detector.
4. Know your routes out.
It’s ideal if you have two escape routes from every room and every building. That’s why many apartments these days have two exits, and the blocks often have stairwells on both ends of the building.
It’s your job to scope out those exits and know how you’re going to get out of the building from all rooms in your apartment – especially the bedroom.
If you have children, this is also a topic to bring up with them. Every fire protection week, get together and discuss your fire escape plan. Talk about how your child can get out of their bedroom, including their alternative escape route if possible. If they don’t usually take the secondary or emergency stairwells in the building, it’s also a good idea to take them across to show them where the stairs are and where they lead to.
5. Arrange an Assembly Location
Once you have made it out of the building during a fire, you and your loved ones will need to know where to meet. This is an important measure to take because there’s a good chance you might get separated during the evacuation.
If there’s an agreed upon assembly location, it’ll make your task as well as the first responders’ task a lot easier. The first thing they’ll want to know is that everyone has been evacuated successfully. When there’s an agreed upon assembly location, it’s easier to account for who’s made it out and who hasn’t. There’s less confusion or ambiguity about whether someone has made it out but is not sure where to go or who to report to.
If you’ve got kids, don’t forget to also practice with them where to meet, go down there and meet up there every now and then so they know exactly where to go, and bring it up every time you update your fire escape plan and checklist.
6. Close your apartment doors.
Doors act as ‘fire stops’. When the door is shut, you can keep out both smoke and heat. However, be sure not to lock the internal doors in your house without a good reason. Firefighters might need to access your house, and they’ll need to get from room to room. Furthermore, you don’t want to get locked into a room if there is a fire there.
To check whether there is a fire behind a door, you can check to see if smoke is seeping through the gap on the floor, or place the back of your palm on the door to feel for heat. It’s advisable not to open a door unless you’re sure there’s not a fire behind it, or if it’s absolutely necessary to save your life.
Remember to follow the recommendations of your local fire department.
7. Get a fire extinguisher.
A fire extinguisher is an absolute must for any homeowner. There are 5 and 10 pound dry chemical fire extinguishers designed for home kitchens and garages. Keep in mind you need to follow the recommendations and requirements provided by your local authorities about what extinguisher is best for your home.
We feel an ABC rated dry chemical extinguisher is the ideal extinguisher for a home. This extinguisher puts out most fires that you come across in a domestic kitchen or living space.
Make sure your fire extinguisher is placed in an easily accessible location and you know how to operate it properly and effectively. Once a month, check the gauge to ensure it’s still full (in the ‘green’ section) and ready to use when it’s needed at short notice.
8. Get a fire blanket.
Another great personal safety device is a fire blanket. Fire blankets are great for kitchen fires as they can be placed over the fire and put it out quickly and effectively without creating a mess (if you’re trained appropriately on how to use them). However, they are only for small incipient fires, and not for larger fires that have a greater surface area than the blanket itself. Once used, the blanket needs to be disposed of and a new one purchased.
9. Get a fire escape ladder.
A fire escape ladder is a unique but particularly important part of your apartment fire escape plan. If there’s a fire blocking the emergency exits in your apartment, you need a way of getting to the ground floor and outside to safety – fast! Too often, firefighters arrive too late to save lives.
A fire escape ladder is a ladder that you usually hook on a window or highly secured balcony. You then throw the ladder off the edge and let it fall to the floor. Next step – you’ll need to make that scary journey down the ladder to safety. Given that it’s dangerous to operate these, it’s advisable to get training on their use before the emergency comes around.
Apartments have their own unique fire risks. When moving into your apartment, you need to ensure you follow all the rules and regulations set out by your apartment building, your local government, and of course any state or federal laws that may apply. A good quality fire escape ladder, fire extinguisher and smoke detector give additional peace of mind that you’ll be prepared in the case there’s an unexpected fire in your building.
Remember, this information is stated as personal opinion for our circumstances and does not constitute advice, professional or otherwise, to you, your jurisdiction, and your circumstances. Consult with your local fire department for information specific to your situation and make sure you’re well trained in use before a fire occurs.