You can’t prevent fires if you’re unable to see the issues putting your properties at risk. Emerging property management tools like mobile inspection software give owners and managers visibility to detect critical vulnerabilities early.
95,000 fires scorched apartment communities in 2016 according to the latest available data from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) — adding up to $711 million dollars worth of direct property damage. Regrettably, these numbers are no anomaly.
For the past decade, the number of annual apartment fires has hovered between 90 and 98 thousand, with accompanying property losses per year lingering stubbornly around the $1 billion mark. Even Trump Tower isn’t immune. And we’ve recently passed the 1 year mark since the Grenfell Tower blaze in London killed 71 residents — spurring an ongoing official inquiry that could result in corporate manslaughter charges.
We can take heart that overall civilian deaths and injuries from multifamily fires have declined modestly thanks to increasing awareness of safety protocols, improved building standards and better inspections. But the heat is still on, so to speak, to put an end to preventable tragedy.
As recent news stories continue to rattle us with the details of fatal fires, those investing in multifamily real estate need to ask themselves if they’re treating their assets only as a source of passive income without paying much attention to daily operations. And those managing multifamily portfolios should ask if they’re doing what they can to prevent apartment fires by documenting and addressing critical property vulnerabilities, increasing onsite visibility, encouraging safe resident behavior and more.
Criminal charges could await owners and operators who are negligent in protecting life and property. If your building isn’t up to code or your inspection system fails to inform you of onsite hazards, you can be held liable for involuntary manslaughter in the event of a fire involving resident death or injury. But you cannot act to prevent fires if you’re unable to see the issues putting your properties at risk.
Emerging property management tools like mobile inspection software give owners and managers the visibility to detect critical vulnerabilities early, keep residents safe and act on their data before a problem like faulty wiring becomes catastrophic.
As you strategize to more effectively document and address adverse conditions, maintenance and resident behavior across your multifamily portfolio, remember that no matter what year a residential building was constructed, there is always room to improve fire safety with regular inspections of your fire alarm and suppression systems.
Identify Critical Property Vulnerabilities
The United States Fire Association (USFA) reports that cooking equipment was involved in more than two thirds of multifamily apartment fires. Further, in cases where fires extended beyond the area of origin, the report notes that the majority of blazes were also cooking-related fires — making kitchens and outdoor barbecue areas urgently important spaces to monitor.
But stoves, ovens and barbeques aren’t the only contributors to fire risk. Smoke alarms failed to operate in 6.7% (4,491 count) of multifamily housing fires, and in another 9.9% (6,628 count) of fires, the operation of smoke alarms was reported as undetermined.
While it’s true that residents are responsible for maintaining their own smoke alarms, property managers can help ensure their units are being properly protected by sending residents regular reminders to test smoke alarms and keep the batteries fresh. Property management software can be configured to automatically remind residents to complete life safety checkups quarterly or semi-annually. A notice under the door or a quick email blast to remind residents of your policies, give tips for safe kitchen use and help with emergency planning could mean the difference between risky resident conduct and a safe, secure building. Upgrading your inspection workflow helps you track how effective you’ve been in influencing safer resident behavior.
Additionally, given the fact that cooking is involved in such a high percentage of fires, providing safety equipment in the kitchen can be a cost-effective way to prevent major damage even if a fire breaks out in a unit. You might add kitchen stovetop fire suppressors for instance, that will open when a sustained flame comes in direct contact with its underside.
Like smoke alarms, most fire safety equipment has a lifespan that’s easy to document with technology such as HappyCo. Fire extinguishers should be replaced every 5-15 years depending on the model being purchased, and ventilation systems should be checked every 3-5 years to prevent flammable buildups.
One of the best lines of defense is to install an automatic extinguishing system if your buildings don’t already have them. Such systems usually take the form of sprinklers, which are proven to dramatically improve building fire safety. In fact, the USFA reports that from 2013 to 2015, buildings that had automatic extinguishing systems suffered only 12.2% of the uncontained fires in multifamily structures. The tragic loss of life in the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London was largely due to the building’s lack of a fire suppression system.
It’s also critical to take into account the populations renting from you. “People over the age of 65 are twice as likely to suffer injuries or lose their lives in fires compared to the population-at-large” according to USFA. If you manage a senior housing community or any property in which a large proportion of residents might lack the mobility to safely escape a fire, you should work with your local fire departments to develop and maintain evacuation plans for each building.
Many apartments built during a different era of building and fire codes were constructed without sprinkler systems however, making compensation through well-supplied fire extinguishers critical.
You may also choose to construct, improve or inspect and maintain smoke and fire barriers. “In essence, these barriers break up the building into several compartments, which can contain the fire and smoke from spreading for a period of time,” allowing residents to reach safety (source). Senior Housing News also notes that “problems related to improper fire and smoke barriers remain some of the top deficiencies in health care facilities, according to the NFPA.”
Upgrade Your Inspections to Get
Onsite Visibility and Portfolio Compliance
Outmoded property inspections fail to serve the critical purpose of alerting management to safety issues. 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 like weak structural integrity almost impossible.
This lack of consistency and visibility make a fire far more difficult to prevent and wrongful death claims and code violations far more likely and far more consequential. Losing one inspection form might mean your team failed to address a fire hazard, or failed to document that you had, resulting in loss of life or millions in damages. Walking properties with pen, paper and clipboard in tow doesn’t cut it anymore.
Another problem familiar to many multifamily operators is this: the more properties your company owns and/or manages, the harder it becomes to monitor all of your inspections and ensure compliance in a timely manner — putting your residents and assets at risk.
So whatever fire safety equipment you choose to install, an automated inspection platform can remove sources of human error and negligence — ensuring all of your equipment is in proper working order and that codes are being adhered to.
HappyCo’s mobile inspection solution automatically timestamps inspection photos and organizes them in reports that are forever backed up to the cloud, searchable and immediately accessible so you have documentation of your fire safety measures the moment you need it. HappyCo also pairs your mobile inspections with a cloud-based management console offering instant 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.
These new tools make it easier to identify problematic trends in equipment failure for instance. Real-time analytics and BI can tie together pieces of information you might otherwise assume to be isolated incidents. You can also track the age of fire safety features and forecast your budgets for repair and replace.
Since building codes and local regulations are constantly changing, you’ll need an inspection tool that allows you to customize forms, deploy them portfolio-wide with the click of your mouse and schedule inspections — keeping your company operationally aligned and compliant.
Collecting inspection data on mobile also provides an operable base of information for government officials where fire safety is concerned. As opposed to the isolated recommendations of individual city or state inspectors, standardized mobile inspection information can pinpoint building statuses, compliance and recommendations across municipalities. Official inspections can change from an annoyance into an opportunity with the application of the right technology.
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.
Sleep better knowing you’ve minimized fire danger at your properties. Avoid failing to respond to potential hazards or doing so burdened with inaccuracies.
Don’t let it happen to you. Get real-time property operations with HappyCo.
Drive property compliance, pinpoint fire’s warning signs, and get immediate access to safety documentation when you need it.