Fire safety in a digital age

How inspections can help prevent disaster

Burning more than 77,000 acres in Northern California, the Kincade Fire has disrupted everyday life for countless people in the region. With fire safety in the spotlight, HappyCo covers best practices for preventative inspections.

Burning more than 77,000 acres in Northern California, the Kincade Fire has disrupted everyday life for countless people in the region. With fire safety in the spotlight, HappyCo covers best practices for preventative inspections.

Fire safety in a digital age
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Burning more than 77,000 acres in Northern California, the Kincade Fire has disrupted everyday life for countless people in the region. With fire safety in the spotlight, HappyCo covers best practices for preventative inspections.

“More than five times the size of Manhattan.” The scope of Northern California’s Kincade Fire is tough to stomach. Destroying nearly 375 structures and prompting PG&E to cut power for hundreds of thousands of residents in the region, the blaze is proving terribly destructive.

Kincade represents yet another hard financial hit for California, already facing an estimated $15 billion to $19 billion in damage from last year’s Camp and Woolsey wildfires. Yet, the Golden State isn’t alone in facing disastrous fires; Builder Magazine notes wildfires “were also rampant in 11 other western states [last year], each of which had at least one wildfire that exceeded 50,000 acres.”

Yet, by putting fire safety in the spotlight once more, Kincade is giving multifamily operators a powerful opportunity for self-reflection. The question at hand: “am I doing enough to keep my communities safe?” HappyCo shares best practices for fire safety inspections — from unit items to landscaping liabilities — revealing how diligent inspections can help multifamily communities avoid disaster.

From sobering stats to lasting change: a FEMA study.

apartment fire

In a thorough study published June 2018, FEMA reports there were an estimated 1,800 deadly fires in residential buildings between 2014 and 2016. According to FEMA, these fires caused an annual average of 2,700 deaths, 600 injuries, and $173 million in property loss.

Importantly, FEMA reports that a significant percentage of these tragedies were caused by residents’ poor decision-making; 17 percent of deadly fires were linked to “careless” actions and 14 percent were linked to smoking. Worse still, FEMA found that “79 percent of fatal fires in residential buildings…extended beyond the room of origin.”

It’s also critical that multifamily operators shake the myth of fires striking during summer; FEMA points to a “much higher incidence of residential fires in the cooler months — twice that of the summer months, perhaps as a result of increased activities indoors.” Indeed, the agency’s study suggests “residential fatal fires peaked in January at 14 percent.”

With this data in mind, operators are well-suited to make what may be life-saving changes to their inspection process — before the winter months even begin. HappyCo turns now to key risk factors within multifamily complexes.

Prioritizing safety: addressing the biggest risks.

smoke alarm

Stressing that many of its 20,000 apartment buildings are more than 50 years old, the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection website offers a list of essential inspection items to protect residents from fire risks.

The strategies include: replacing smoke alarm batteries annually, ensuring space heaters are at least three feet from other items, and ensuring appliances are plugged into a wall and not running under rugs or furniture. Additionally, SFBDI stresses that it’s critical outdoor lights are not used indoors (they may be too hot or unsafe), and that all lighting is identified as lab-tested for safety.

Perhaps above all, SFBDI’s thorough fire safety checklist calls for proper lighting in exit corridors, regular maintenance of fire sprinklers at the top and bottom of chutes, and “a clear and unobstructed means of egress” — from rear stairs to fire escapes.

fire escape

However, given FEMA’s finding that a significant portion of residential building fires are related to human behavior, it’s valuable to cover HUD’s REAC Inspection section on “tenant-created problems.” The items include citing tenants for disabling smoke detectors, placing belongings too close to baseboard heaters, blocking egress (i.e. placing an air conditioner in a room’s only window). HUD also calls for operators to check that stairwells are free of fire and tripping hazards — to ensure a speedy exit is possible when the time calls.

Finally, HUD’s REAC inspection list touches on steps to ensure electrical sources do not pose a risk to residents. HUD stresses that maintenance teams must avoid storing anything wet or flammable (i.e. a mop bucket) in a room that houses an electrical panel. In that same realm, HUD notes that all electrical boxes must be locked and that maintenance crews replace cracked (or missing) light switch plate covers.

Not to be forgotten? Fire extinguishers. HUD REAC inspections require that fire extinguishers have been inspected by the local fire department within the last year. Having covered what maintenance teams should be checking indoors, it’s useful to consider how landscaping can actually be an asset — not a liability — should a wildfire strike.

Landscaping as an asset.

dead grass

“Fire is going to do what fire is going to do…But there are steps you can take to mitigate the risks.” When it comes to the battle between oncoming flames and thoughtful landscaping, Yardzen landscape architect Kevin Lenhart puts things plainly.

Lenhart’s frankness notwithstanding, Yardzen has good reason to believe that its “three-pronged approach” to fire-resilient landscaping (design, plantings, and maintenance) can actually help save lives in a wildfire. Indeed, by building a “defensible space” around their own home a few years back, Yardzen founders Allison and Adam Messner managed to keep their house when the Tubbs fire hit the area.

This “defensible space,” as fire officials call it, entails several factors: ensuring no tree branches touch the home, keeping plants four to five feet from the structure, and removing lower limbs of a tree so that branches don’t reach the ground.

low branches

Additional steps operators can take include removing dead trees and flammable plants (juniper, manzanita, etc.), mowing dead grass so that it’s below three inches, and considering replacement fencing made of metal or built of less wood than your current variety.

For now, the city of Santa Rosa does not “require that landscapes incorporate fire safety measures.” Yet, The Press Democrat suggests many local officials are hopeful this might change, such that landscape design and vegetation management become key safety criteria for people who live “closer to wildlands.” Indeed, a 2019 piece in Builder Online offers a persuasive statistic supporting just this push.

Author Symone Garvett reveals that “research and real-life demonstrations” carried out by the Institute for Business & Home Safety found “roughly 90% of homes and buildings damaged or destroyed in a wildfire were first ignited by embers or other fires set by embers… not the actual wildfire front.” Garvett notes that “if [embers] get inside a home through vents or an open window or land on dead landscaping…houses become extremely at risk.”

With these landscaping strategies top of mind, operators can leverage inspections to ensure the exteriors of their properties are as fire-ready as the interiors. However, multifamily operators are likely to find that a digital, portfolio-wide view of inspections offers the most comprehensive picture of any work to be done. A Texas fire department shares its take on why…

The power of a portfolio-wide view.


“When was the last time Iconic [Villages] was inspected? We literally had to go back through paper after paper…Today, a click of a few keys and we can give you inspection reports since about March of this year.” In an interview with the San Marcos Daily Record, Fire Marshall Kelly Kister describes the digital transition her department made following a 2018 apartment complex fire that killed five people who were under the age of 25.

With 70 percent of San Marcos’ population living in apartments, the town’s fire officials say they’re “trying everything they can to prevent another deadly fire from occurring.” As the Iconic Villages building lacked a sprinkler system — and wasn’t required to have one due to its age — fire officials in San Marcos started putting together a thorough list of communities that also had no safety system.

Now, with a city-wide view of properties that have been inspected or need to be, fire officials in San Marcos Fire Department Battalion Chief Howie Minor feels of his team: “if it ever happens again they’re going to have this under their belt.”

From inspecting smoke alarm batteries to transforming risky landscape designs, multifamily operators have a range of risks to evaluate to keep residents safe in the event of a fire. Yet, through diligent inspections and portfolio-wide assessments of their properties, these multifamily executives have a powerful chance to ensure community safety never slips through the cracks.

Glennis Markison
About the Author
Glennis Markison
Senior Content & Webinar Producer

Glennis is a writer/producer from San Francisco. Taking the city’s trains and buses with riders of all ages and backgrounds inspired Glennis to go into journalism and share people’s stories for a living. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 2013, she worked at CBS San Francisco as a program coordinator, public affairs producer, and ultimately full-time news writer for the KPIX 5 Morning News. She’s excited to enter the bustling startup world and tell HappyCo’s stories across channels.


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