Fire Safety Tips for High-Rise and Condo Buildings

Posted on Tuesday December 15, 2015


For many people who live in high-rise or condominium buildings, nothing else compares to vertical living – after all, where else can you find the same combination of dramatic views, convenient location, on-site amenities and attentive service?  But what about fire safety?  If you’re a high-rise or condo resident, do you know how to prepare your family for fire – and what to do if fire breaks out? 
“If you’re a resident of a high-rise or condo building, you need to be knowledgeable and proactive about fire safety – that means following your condo association’s rules and doing your part to keep your unit and building fire-safe,” said Marc Glassman, Director of Facilities and Maintenance, East, for FirstService Residential, one of the country’s leading high-rise building management companies.  “It’s also critical that you and your family are well-prepared in case fire ever does break out, to ensure your safety before, during and afterwards.”
To help you get started, we’ve compiled some smart tips for fire safety and prevention from the experts at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the nation’s leading information and knowledge resource on fire, electrical and related hazards. 

1.  Get to know your building. 

Whether you just moved in or are a building veteran, it’s very important to familiarize yourself with the building’s layout and interiors.  Be sure you know the location of all building fire alarms, exits and stairwells – that includes the closest stairwell to your unit, as well as all other stairwells on your floor in case that one is blocked.  Also, choose a safe meeting place away from your building, and make sure every member of the family knows to go there and wait until everyone is reunited. 
2. Get to know your building manager.
Set up a meeting with your property manager or managing agent to learn all about your building’s fire prevention systems.  Ask about its fire alarms and sprinkler systems, and find out if the building utilizes a voice communication system to immediately notify residents in case of fire, such as FirstService Residential’s ResidentAlert system.  Don’t forget about the building’s fire safety and evacuation plans – you’ll want to know in advance the quickest and most direct routes outside.
Find out if the building holds fire prevention meetings, fire drills or other safety events for residents – if yes, participate, and if not, suggest they do (or join or create a committee to make that happen).  And very important:  be sure to let your property manager know if anyone in your unit has mobility or other health issues that would require assistance to leave. 
3.  Keep your home fire-safe. 

Fire prevention begins at home.  That means supervising children and pets around flames and electricity – especially during the holidays, when twinkling lights and candles are often part of the décor.  Speaking of pets, make sure yours are tagged, collared and microchipped, with a leash or crate readily available near the door in case you need to evacuate. 
Inside your unit, you must have functioning smoke alarms outside all bedrooms and living rooms – and don’t forget to test them frequently and change their batteries twice a year when you change your clocks.  Never leave cooking pans or pots unattended – and the same goes for candles, which should be safely extinguished when you leave the room.  Don’t overload electrical outlets – better yet, unplug electrical cords when not in use.  And very important – make sure your exits are free from obstructions, like strollers, bicycles and other large objects, at all times. 
If you have a fireplace, check that there are no flammable objects nearby and all embers are extinguished before you go to bed.  But first things first – before the season even begins, be sure you prep your fireplace properly – and that includes making sure it passes inspection by a certified inspector.  For more valuable ‘why-didn’t-I-think-of-that?’ fireplace preparation tips, visit The Elements of Living
Furthermore, if you reside in a smoking building, it is extremely important to pay attention to where you or your smoking neighbors dispose of cigarette butts.   Designated receptacles and areas for cigarette butt disposal areas are necessary to avoid risk of fire from potentially flammable ashes and cigarette remnants.
4.  Fire! Should you stay or evacuate?

In a fire emergency, the decision to leave or to stay in your apartment will depend in part on the type of building you are in. For example, in New York City, buildings are classified as either non-combustible (fireproof) or combustible (non-fireproof), and there are different actions to take for each.

In non-combustible buildings, fires are more likely to be contained in the unit or space in which they start – and less likely to spread inside the walls to other apartments and floors. Therefore, if you live in a non-combustible building and the fire is not in your unit, you are instructed to remain in your unit, if possible, and call 911.

Combustible buildings have structural components (such as wood) that will burn if exposed to fire and can contribute to its spread. If you live in such a building and a fire breaks out in a neighboring apartment or common area, feel your apartment door and doorknob for heat. If they are not hot, open the door slightly and check the hallway for smoke, heat or fire. Exit the apartment and building if you can safely do so.

If the fire is in your unit – no matter what type of building you live in – help everyone get out and head for the safest exit, while staying low to the floor.  Take your keys, if readily available, and close all doors inside the unit as you leave, including the front door – but do not lock it. 

For more information, see below: 

When you need to exit quickly. 

If you are instructed to leave your apartment, you must act quickly.  Stay calm, listen carefully, follow directions and pay attention to where the fire is to avoid smoke inhalation as you exit.   As instructed above, first, feel the door and the doorknob.  If they are not hot, open the door a little bit and check the hallway for fire, heat or smoke.  If it’s clear, prepare to leave quickly, shutting all doors behind you and closing the front door as you exit to prevent fire from spreading to your unit.  Gather your children, family members and pets and leave the building via the nearest stairwell – never the elevator (more on that in a moment).   
If the door and doorknob are hot, or other indications of smoke, heat or fire prevent you from leaving through the front door, use the fire escape, if you have access to one.  Proceed cautiously, and make sure you carry or hold small children at all times.
Once you’re outside, go directly to your pre-determined meeting place and call 911 – the operator will need to know the building’s address, your location and other pertinent information about the building and its residents. 

When you need to stay where you are. 

As explained above, if you live in a non-combustible building, you should stay in your unit unless otherwise instructed by fire officials – or if smoke, heat, fire or medical issues prevent you from leaving.  Keep calm and act quickly, stuffing wet towels or sheets under door, air vents or other openings where smoke may enter.    
Call 911 and provide your address, floor, apartment number and the number of people in your apartment and wait for help to arrive.  While you wait, open the windows a few inches at the top and bottom unless flames and smoke are coming from below, but if you can’t open them, don’t break them.  And once the windows are open, be prepared to shut them immediately if the airflow makes smoke conditions worse. 
Avoid the elevators. 

Unless you’re directed to do so by the fire department, never use the elevators during a fire – and make sure your children know to avoid them as well.  Why?  For a number of reasons.  Some are practical:  only a few people can fit inside an elevator at once, so it’s an inefficient way to evacuate a large number of residents at the same time.  In addition, the elevators may be needed by the fire department to quickly whisk firefighters and equipment to and from the fire or a nearby floor.  On a more ominous note, elevator shafts can fill quickly with smoke and you may get stuck inside if power is lost or cut.  And in some cases, the fire can short circuit the call button, causing the elevator to open its doors at the floor where the fire is located.  So when fire strikes, play it safe – take the stairs.    
High-rise condo living offers unique benefits and a rewarding lifestyle – and safety is a big part of that.   So keep family safe by following these fire prevention tips, and for more fire safety information and guidelines, visit the National Fire Protection Agency.  

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