On Friday, December 2, a fire engulfed a warehouse in Oakland, California – resulting in the deaths of at least 36 people attending a party. This facility was not only being used as a warehouse but, according to media reports, provided housing even though it was not licensed to do so. This tragic fire, along with a spate of apartment building and rental home fires right here in Kansas, should cause building owners to consider whether or not they are providing the safest possible facilities for their residents.
Multi-family dwellings account for a total of 19.4% of residential structure fires in Kansas. Through inspection and enforcement, the Office of the State Fire Marshal works with building owners and landlords to ensure compliance with building codes aimed at protecting the lives and property of residents. State Fire Marshal Doug Jorgensen wants to provide information that both landlords and residents need to know to ensure safe places for living and congregating.
“There are special areas of concern when it comes to fire safety in apartment buildings,” says Jorgensen. “Families in apartment buildings live close together, affecting each other’s risks associated with fire. Landlords and tenants alike have a role to play in maintaining a fire-safe place to live.”
Landlord and occupant responsibility and safety measures
Landlords are required to install a working smoke alarm in each of their rental units and repair or replace them when they are deficient. Tenants have the responsibility to ensure that the smoke alarms in their homes are present, clean and operational, and may be responsible for changing batteries in smoke alarms, if applicable. Each rental unit should also be equipped with a fire extinguisher or automatic sprinkler system or both. Tenants should make sure they are aware of the protection available and understand its use and maintenance.
Landlords may face further responsibilities based on local jurisdiction and the rental agreement. It is imperative that both owners and tenants understand the roles and responsibilities for testing and maintaining smoke alarms to avoid failures. To be absolutely sure and safe, residents should assume a degree of personal responsibility toward working smoke alarms, regardless of what the agreement or law may state.
Almost 40% of fires in multi-family dwellings occurred above the ground floor. It is imperative residents, especially families with children, establish and practice an escape plan with multiple exits.
Building owners need to comply with the Kansas Fire Prevention Code, which covers safety systems -- sprinkler systems, fire alarms, emergency lighting, exit lights, and exiting of the building. They should check with their local building code officials. Many local jurisdictions have more stringent codes than the state’s requirements.
What causes apartment fires?
Cooking - Apartment homes count for a statistically higher percentage of cooking fires than occur in other residential types. One in two apartment fires are caused by cooking, while in other types of residences cooking accounts for one in four fires. Cooking fires in apartment buildings caused a reported loss of $1,656,086 in 2015.
Smoking - No matter the type of residence, balconies/porches are the top area of origin for smoking fires. Multi-family dwellings have a larger problem with 37% of smoking fires happening on the balcony/porch. Smoking-related fires on balconies/porches at houses account for just 14% of all smoking fires. Often, this is caused by smoking materials discarded into potted plants or mulch. Both are flammable and cause smoldering fires. Guests of non-smoking renters may dispose of cigarette butts in such material when an ash tray is not made available.
Utilities – Fifty percent of Kansas water heater fires in residences occurred in multi-family dwellings. Often there is a delayed detection of this type of fire, with water heaters in dedicated utility rooms without smoke alarms. Regular maintenance, inspection, and heat/smoke alarms could reduce the number of fires.
For more information on fire safety for apartments and other residential rental properties, visit FireMarshal.ks.gov/renters.