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“How Could This Have Happened?” Why You Won’t Notice The Warning Signs Before A Fire At Your Apartment

Industry Insights

When Were Your Apartments Last Inspected for Fire Safety? 95,000 U.S. Apartments Caught Fire in 2015. Avert Disaster with Real-Time Property Operations

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We find ourselves repeatedly rattled by preventable tragedy when it comes to fire. Each time we watch disaster unfold, we ask the same disquieting question: “How could this have happened?” Invariably, investigators uncover a progression of warning signs that led to the incident. And we usually find out those responsible for the safety of the victims missed numerous opportunities to intervene — windows for action they failed to recognize; and so were unprepared to prevent loss of life, property and home.

In 2016, fire departments in the United States responded to 95,000 apartment fires that killed 325 people, injured 3,375 and destroyed $711 million worth of property. Apartment and house fires are the most prevalent of all building fires nationally, with 77% of fires categorized as residential. This means we’re more susceptible to death from fire in our homes than anywhere else.

A successful fire prevention strategy should be part of every property’s day-to-day operations and is the responsibility of the owner, manager and residents. An article that draws lessons from the horrific December 2016 Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, California, astutely and accurately notes, “Real estate is often touted as a passive investment opportunity — but it’s not so passive that landlords aren’t responsible for knowing what’s going on in their buildings. In the event of injuries or fatalities, everything will ride on what the landlord knew — or reasonably should have known.”

Weighted scale

In New York Times coverage of the Ghost Ship fire (aptly titled, Why the ‘Ghost Ship’ Was Invisible in Oakland, Until 36 Died ) the authors describe the property as “a disaster waiting to happen.” Part of the deadly mix of factors, they conclude, was “a flawed safety inspection system” that led to 36 deaths in the cluttered, two-exit building even though it stood only 200 yards away and visible from the Oakland firehouse No. 13. The county district attorney is leading a criminal investigation to determine the liability of the property owner.

The Ghost Ship fire serves as a critical warning to asset owners and property managers across the U.S. — if your building isn’t up to code or your inspection system fails to inform you of critical vulnerabilities on your properties, you can be held responsible for involuntary manslaughter in the event of a fire involving resident death or injury. So you absolutely must ensure active monitoring of your assets to avert both tragedy and liability.


Weighted scale

In New York Times coverage of the Ghost Ship fire (aptly titled, Why the ‘Ghost Ship’ Was Invisible in Oakland, Until 36 Died ) the authors describe the property as “a disaster waiting to happen.” Part of the deadly mix of factors, they conclude, was “a flawed safety inspection system” that led to 36 deaths in the cluttered, two-exit building even though it stood only 200 yards away and visible from the Oakland firehouse No. 13. The county district attorney is leading a criminal investigation to determine the liability of the property owner.

The Ghost Ship fire serves as a critical warning to asset owners and property managers across the U.S. — if your building isn’t up to code or your inspection system fails to inform you of critical vulnerabilities on your properties, you can be held responsible for involuntary manslaughter in the event of a fire involving resident death or injury. So you absolutely must ensure active monitoring of your assets to avert both tragedy and liability.

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“If your building isn’t up to code or your inspection system fails to inform you of critical vulnerabilities on your properties, you can be held responsible for involuntary manslaughter in the event of a fire involving resident death or injury.”

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While the Ghost Ship warehouse was a commercially zoned building illegally being used as residential housing and for large events, apartments are more typically the sites of dangerous conditions more vulnerable to fire hazards. A Las Vegas apartment complex that failed its most recent inspection in May 2016 because of problems with bars on unit windows, rear exits chained shut and outdated fire alarm systems, burned down seven months later, killing three family members in January 2017. No smoke alarms were found in the apartment during the ensuing investigation. And even if smoke alarms had been present, that’s no guarantee they would function as intended.

That’s because in 25% of these fatal fires, alarms were present, but did not work due to dead batteries or age. It’s recommended you replace smoke alarms (not just the batteries) every 10 years whether the batteries are dead or not.

The main vulnerabilities in residential housing include high risk activities like smoking and unattended candles; storage, garbage areas and chutes lacking sprinklers; egress obstructions, roof areas with debris and/or dangerous wiring; inoperative or encumbered fire escapes, and unattended, unauthorized or improperly wired cooking appliances.

It’s also important to consider how fire will behave in regard to an adjacent building. Older buildings and those constructed with non-rated wood frames (for example, the 50% of housing stock built in San Francisco prior to 1940) allow fire to progress more quickly, extend into void spaces between walls and leap from attic to attic. Older buildings also can harbor hidden deterioration, like electrical systems approaching the end of their life cycle.

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Leading Causes of Residential Fires:

1. Smoking (32%)
2. Heating (18%)
3. Cooking (12%)
4. Electrical (12%)

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Indoor fire sprinkler

To avert potential disaster, you absolutely must inspect your fire alarm and suppression systems regularly. Your audits should include ensuring fire extinguishers are annually serviced and tagged and that sprinklers have enough clearance above tall objects to be effective. Building codes require that a second means of egress is kept clear for escape at all times, so your teams should document that doors and windows to fire escapes are operable and that any security bars on windows open with a manual release from the inside — this was a central concern in the Las Vegas fire. Double cylinder locks on exit doors can become a death trap in an emergency, so take stock of maintenance and buying practices for replacing locks properly. Be attentive to resident maintenance requests and complaints.

On the educational front, keep your residents and staff informed about escape routes and exits, evacuation procedures and avoiding hazardous behavior (like leaving a stove unattended) with signage, drills and more.

To avert potential disaster, you absolutely must inspect your fire alarm and suppression systems regularly. Your audits should include ensuring fire extinguishers are annually serviced and tagged and that sprinklers have enough clearance above tall objects to be effective. Building codes require that a second means of egress is kept clear for escape at all times, so your teams should document that doors and windows to fire escapes are operable and that any security bars on windows open with a manual release from the inside — this was a central concern in the Las Vegas fire. Double cylinder locks on exit doors can become a death trap in an emergency, so take stock of maintenance and buying practices for replacing locks properly. Be attentive to resident maintenance requests and complaints.

On the educational front, keep your residents and staff informed about escape routes and exits, evacuation procedures and avoiding hazardous behavior (like leaving a stove unattended) with signage, drills and more.

Indoor fire sprinkler

Of course, the practices described above are just a small portion of a comprehensive on-the-ground fire safety inspection. For management, the stories of the Oakland and Las Vegas fires illustrate the gravest consequences of an ineffective inspection workflow. You cannot act to prevent fires if you can’t see which issues put your property at risk. So why do many property inspections fail to serve the critical purpose of alerting management to safety issues?

In practice, inspections can be painstaking to perform and even more onerous to track, and losing one inspection form might mean your team failed to address a fire hazard, resulting in loss of life or millions in damages. The more properties a company owns or manages, the harder it becomes to monitor all the inspections and ensure compliance in a timely manner — putting your residents and assets at risk.

Conventional paper-and-pen and excel-based inspections don’t provide management with visibility into onsite operations, making it far more likely important inspections aren’t completed consistently by property staff; and paper inspections often return illegible handwriting and inconsistent information, making identifying fire safety issues almost impossible. This lack of consistency and visibility make a fire far more difficult to prevent and wrongful death claims and misdemeanor code violations far more likely and far more consequential.

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“Paper inspections often return illegible handwriting and inconsistent information, making identifying fire safety issues almost impossible. This lack of consistency and visibility make a fire far more difficult to prevent and wrongful death claims and misdemeanor code violations far more likely and far more consequential.”

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Because most inspection systems lack real-time property-level monitoring, there’s a greater likelihood your onsite teams will skip or fail to fill out data on the very inspections most imperative to your pest control efforts. Moving from a paper-based process to mobile has dramatically improved inspection compliance for our customers, like Yellowstone Club who saw a 46% increase in compliance and Equity Residential, who now achieves close to 100% compliance. Before they began employing a mobile inspection system, they weren’t able to see which of their properties hadn’t completed mandatory inspections. The visibility created by their new workflow has improved accountability organization-wide.

Picture of electrical fire in the Happy Inspector app

A mobile inspection solution can also automatically time-stamp inspection photos and organize them in reports that are forever backed up to the cloud, searchable and immediately accessible so you have documentation of your fire safety measures right when you need it. You’ll want to pair your mobile inspections with an online management console offering insights into your data that give you the visibility and tools to intervene based on set thresholds for compliance — impossible to replicate with a paper-based workflow.

Today, the world of property management is a changed place. You no longer need to guess at operational missteps that threaten life and limb. You can now anticipate needed changes based on mobile inspections to maintain safety and quality across every location, and head off issues before they result in tragedy. Property managers and owners who’ve switched to a mobile inspection solution now have the means to detect vulnerabilities early, keep residents happy and act on their data before a problem becomes catastrophic.

Picture of electrical fire in the Happy Inspector app



A mobile inspection solution can also automatically time-stamp inspection photos and organize them in reports that are forever backed up to the cloud, searchable and immediately accessible so you have documentation of your fire safety measures right when you need it. You’ll want to pair your mobile inspections with an online management console offering insights into your data that give you the visibility and tools to intervene based on set thresholds for compliance — impossible to replicate with a paper-based workflow.

Today, the world of property management is a changed place. You no longer need to guess at operational missteps that threaten life and limb. You can now anticipate needed changes based on mobile inspections to maintain safety and quality across every location, and head off issues before they result in tragedy. Property managers and owners who’ve switched to a mobile inspection solution now have the means to detect vulnerabilities early, keep residents happy and act on their data before a problem becomes catastrophic.

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“A successful fire prevention strategy should be part of every property’s day-to-day operations and is the responsibility of the owner, manager and residents.”

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Keep your residents and your assets safe.

To learn more about how mobile inspections and data insights with HappyCo help you inspect and monitor fire safety across your portfolio, request a demo

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About the author

Avatar

Ben Chadwell
Marketing Manager

Ben hails from the gentle, rolling hills of Pennsylvania, where he achieved a BA in a degree program of his own design - a combo of Conservation Biology, Spanish and International Business - at West Chester University. He brings his background in nonprofit development and writing to the transformative work of HappyCo and especially enjoys crafting thought leadership pieces. When he isn’t creating content and collateral, Ben delights in reading, doing improv theatre and blues dancing.

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