Fire Prevention and Evacuation Policy Having a Plan Saves Lives

Fire Prevention and Evacuation Policy

One only needs to watch the news regularly to get a sense of the devastation wrought by fire on a home or community. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in 2012 (the most recent year on record) some 97,000 fires broke out in apartment buildings (including condos and HOAs) across the U.S., resulting in nearly 400 deaths nationwide, and over 4,000 civilian injuries—many of them grievous.

What's more, Paul Rouse, a member of the Florida Fire Equipment Dealers Association and 34-year veteran of the fire industry, says that over 12 million unintentional fires go unreported, causing 640,000 injuries annually. Some of those fires happened right here in the Tampa Bay area—and some of them robbed apartment residents of their homes, dreams, and even lives.

In March 2014, three people were seriously injured when a fire broke out in a Tampa condo complex. Two months later, a three-alarm fire ripped through a North Tampa condo complex, destroying 12 units and injuring more than a dozen. Fires like this are more common than people think.

According to the NFPA, the top causes for fires in multifamily buildings are cooking-related mishaps, electrical and heating misuse or malfunction, and smoking materials, such as cigarettes and pipes. While these multifamily buildings take great care in their fire prevention programs—adding cutting-edge smoke alarms, mandatory sprinkler systems, and utilizing top-of-the-line flame-resistant building materials, unfortunately, fires still do happen. And whether they’re a small blaze caused by an out-of-control barbeque on a private balcony or four-alarm infernos the result of electrical problems, the main concern of anyone in the building is to get themselves and their families and neighbors out safely.

More Units, More Risk

When a fire occurs in a condominium, the result is a devastating experience for the residents. That’s why it’s so important to implement an effective fire prevention strategy for all staff and residents.

“Unlike a single-family home, where one or sometimes a few families are tragically displaced, a condominium fire can affect hundreds of people,” says Abby Elliott, community association manager for the Parkshore Plaza Condominium Association in St. Petersburg. “Focus on four key elements in your fire safety plan: Prevention, detection, escape planning, and fire department notifications.”

A good fire prevention plan should include: procedures for reporting of emergencies, occupant and staff response to emergencies, evacuation procedures appropriate to the building, its occupancy and emergency, appropriateness of the use of elevators, type, location and coverage of building fire protection systems, names and phone numbers of persons responsible for maintaining the fire protection equipment, and special instructions for any mobility impaired resident.

Good Measures

Sarah Kelly, vice president of Wayne Automatic Fire Sprinklers. Inc. in Ocoee has some important tips for reducing the potential for fire: don't allow barbecue grills on porches (instead, offer a community grilling area that's kept clear of flammable materials and other hazards); never hang anything on a sprinkler head; and regularly check the smoke detectors.

“If you have a fire sprinkler system in place, you should have quarterly and annual inspections of the system,” she says. “Fire sprinklers save lives and protect property. Only one sprinkler head is activated at a time, and it is activated by heat. The one head usually puts out the fire.”

According to Kelly, the components of an effective fire evacuation procedure includes working egress lighting, working horns and strobes, working fire extinguishers, and a working evacuation system. Communities should also practice monthly fire drills and have an escape/evacuation plan in place.

Joe Johnson, inspection manager with Piper Fire Protection in Largo and a member of the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA), says the state requires annual inspections of fire extinguishers, sprinklers and alarms. Additionally, he regularly inspects exit lights. “We test all devices, control valves and flow switches, and also test fire pumps for high-rises and mid-rises,” he says. “Condos need to be prepared in case something happens. No one wants to avoid life safety measures.”

Johnson says that while communities may work with municipal fire departments to develop a solid evacuation plan, companies like his will work with them to develop fire drills for residents, and teach them how to run their fire pumps. They also hold a fire extinguisher class to teach people the proper way to use those key pieces of equipment.

Information is Key

Everyone agrees that good communication with residents is a crucial feature of effective fire prevention. According to Elliott, the responsibility for the fire safety of the building lies with each and every resident.

“In addition, working collaboratively with the staff and local authorities provide for better preventive measures,” she says. “This is information contained in the building operational manual, new owner and resident handbook and covered during an in-house emergency preparedness seminar.”

Kelly recommends communicating through newsletters, HOA meetings, email/text alerts, and even inviting your local Fire Marshal to an HOA meeting. Some properties even observe National Fire Safety Week, which this year was October 4-11th, with activities, information sessions, and other awareness-building events.

“Owners should be educated on the benefits of fire sprinkler and fire alarm systems,” Kelly says. “There are sources such as the Florida Fire Sprinkler Association or the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition who can come to meetings or send materials regarding life safety. It is always more cost effective to design a new building with a fire sprinkler system than to retrofit an existing building.”

Every year in June, Parkshore Plaza Condominium holds an emergency preparedness week for all its staff and residents, addressing anything that constitutes an emergency—such as fires, hurricanes and floods. Also, when people first move into the building, they have a one-on-one conversation about fire prevention and their role in fire safety. Because this is the first time many people have lived on their own, Elliott says, it’s important to remind them about the dangers of not being careful.

But it’s not just the residents that need to be educated. Condo staff must also keep up with the latest fire prevention tools and procedures.

“Our fire marshal comes in every other year and talks to our staff about any changes to the fire code or anything else important,” Elliott says. “There’s going to be different procedures for the staff as opposed to the residents.”

Understanding the Law

The state of Florida has its own fire code called the Florida Fire Prevention Code, which encompasses National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) codes, and dictate annual testing on the fire alarm, fire sprinkler system, fire pump, fire extinguishers and emergency generators in multifamily buildings and developments. These annual tests must be performed by licensed contractors.

“The state and local codes vary depending on when the building was built,” says Kelly. “A high-rise built today would be required to have a fire sprinkler system and an evacuation system in conjunction with the fire alarm system. Other code modifications can be based on the occupancy classification or construction type. Also a local ordinance could be more stringent that a state code.”

In addition, the code also stipulates that emergency instructions 'shall be provided annually to each dwelling unit to indicate the location of alarms, egress paths, and actions to be taken, both in response to a fire in the dwelling unit and in response to the sounding of the alarm systems.' In some cases, building maintenance may be responsible for weekly checks for some of those items.

Although there are smoke detector laws on the books, and the community itself has it written into the bylaws, Elliott says the condo has decided to take it out of the owners’ hands and just replace the batteries and check them themselves every year.

Evacuation Time

The procedure for evacuation is similar in almost all condos and HOAs. Once an alarm sounds, the evacuation of residents should begin immediately. All buildings should post the evacuation route within the building, all stairwells and exit signs should remain lit, and elevators should not operate during a fire evacuation. All strobes, alarms, annunciators and sprinklers should be operational throughout the building and within all units.

According to prevention and firefighting pros, management should then get out of the way and let emergency responders do their work, evacuate anyone remaining in the building, identify the fire and extinguish it.

“We have everyone go to a place across the street—a public park—and there’s a staff member there who will keep track of everyone,” Elliott says. “Check-in is necessary. People don’t always understand that prevention continues after the fire as well. I need to be able to communicate with them to help get them back into their homes or take other measures for help.”

Parkshore Plaza Condominium has two teams as part of its fire evacuation plan. One works with the fire company and helps the firemen know exactly where to go; the other helps with the evacuation of the residents. “One of the most important things we want to remind people is don’t take elevators. It’s such a habit but it’s something that you should never do during an evacuation,” Elliott says. “Also, do not block stairwells or others exits. Just leave the building as quickly and safely as you can.”

For buildings that have senior residents or handicapped residents, special plans need to be in place for their fire safety.

“One of the things we need to do is notify them quickly if there’s a false alarm, because it does take them extra time,” Elliott says. “We will call them first and if they don’t answer, we have someone who will go to their doors and give them the official word.” If it's not a false alarm, a plan is in place to get them out safely with the help of others on the staff.

“The fire itself is a terrifying and emotional experience. Everyone watches as the disaster unfolds in shock. Eventually the fire is put out, but that doesn’t mean the problems are over,” Eliott says. “Prevention and help continues after the fire.”    

Keith Loria is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Western & Central Florida Cooperator.

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