Don’t Get Fired Up

Keeping the smoke in the chimney and out of buildings

In the midst of a biting winter chill, heat is a welcome respite, whether it’s in the form of a functioning radiator or the burning embers from a well-lit fireplace. But the last thing anyone needs are flames engulfing their homes—and in NYC, high-rise buildings are just as much at risk as any other.

The New York State Office of Fire Prevention calculated that fire kills more Americans than all other natural disasters. And according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, between the years 2014 and 2016, there were 108, 200 residential winter fires across the nation each year. Fires can be easily ignited, and once they spread, there is no doubt there will be disaster and severe damage. However, understanding how these fires occur can help in taking the necessary preventive measures.

James Long, the current spokesman in the FDNY’s Office of Public Information, served as a firefighter for fourteen years and witnessed firsthand the common causes of preventable fires. According to Long, there are four main culprits: electrical fires caused by overloading outlets and the improper use of extension cords; candles left too close to combustibles; lighters and matches that are left within children’s reach; and careless smoking. Taking care to be aware of small things like frayed wires and and exposed electrical outlets can make a significant difference in whether a fire occurs or not.

In large buildings like condominiums or cooperatives, it’s essential to maintain a safety protocol in case of fires. With apartments so close to one another, it wouldn’t take much for the fire to spread rapidly from one floor to the next. Thus, being proactive about fire hazards is essential for all building managers and their tenants.

Forward Thinking

When tenants first move into their apartment, it’s helpful to know their building classification. Understanding what type of building their home is will be effective in understanding how to proceed in case of a fire. In NYC, buildings are classified in two categories: combustible (flammable) and non-combustible (non-flammable). The difference between these building types is in the structural component. Non-combustible building fires permit tenants to remain in their apartment unit, as fires can be contained within the unit and are therefore less likely to spread. With structural components made out of steel or concrete, the fire is more likely to be confined to the space in which it occupies. Buildings with a combustible structural component—typically comprised of wood and heavy timber—on the other hand, are more likely to cause the spread of fire, and tenants are advised to evacuate immediately and safely.

In order to ascertain optimal security during the evacuation, all residents should be aware of contingency plans that have been put into place for their particular building. First and foremost, residents should right away be aware of viable exits in which they can evacuate. It’s essential to not only resort to the nearest exit, but to be aware of all neighboring exits in case of a mass build-up at the nearest exit. Tenants and their landlords should have an open communication regarding safety measures and be on the same page about an exit strategy in case of a fire. All buildings should have a fire plan and be compliant with the city’s fire safety codes.

Peter Grech, a resident manager and vice president of education services for the New York Superintendents Technical Association, also advises that building managers and their staff take the initiative to educate all new residents. It isn’t enough to simply distribute the fire safety plans, but ascertain that the residents are fully aware of how to proceed in case of an emergency. This is an important initiative, as most new residents don’t always read every bit of paperwork they are given, and can easily overlook the safety measures. Take a minute and discuss the safety plan with each new resident.

In order to adequately inform residents of procedures, building staff are advised to acquire the information they need to impart to their tenants. NYSTA is an avenue that offers classes for fire safety certifications. Various other organizations such as the NY Fire Consultants, a Staten Island-based fire and life safety consulting firm, also offer classes and perform yearly inspections.

For residents, it’s essential to be as informed as possible. Tenants are advised to take part in any drills that may be scheduled by the landlord, and if there doesn’t appear to be one, residents are encouraged to take the initiative and discuss having one. Additionally, fire-proofing apartments and keeping functioning detectors in the living room and bedrooms offer safety. Other precautions include unplugging all appliances when not use, not overloading electrical outlets, and keeping all exits free from obstructions such as bicycles, strollers, treadmills, etc. If there is a fireplace, check that no flammable objects are nearby that can easily ignite and that the embers are extinguished before it is left unattended.

Stop, Assess, Act

These preventative measures can significantly influence the frequency and severity of a fire and reduce damages. However, in the event of a fire, there are specific directions residents are encouraged to follow. While it’s true our fight-or-flight instincts are in high gear and it’s tempting to stampede toward safety, the best way to evacuate is by carefully following directions and paying close attention to one’s surroundings. If the fire didn’t start in your unit, one way to detect the direction from which the flames are coming is by cautiously feeling the doorknobs. If they’re hot, move as far away from that direction as possible, because the source of the fire is most likely on the other side of that door. Act quickly and stuff wet towels or sheets under the doors, air vents or other openings in which smoke can enter your home before heading toward the nearest exit.

If the doorknob isn’t hot, then carefully open the door and check up and down the hall for smoke or fire. If the the coast is clear, leave as quickly as possible and be sure to close the door behind to contain the heat and fire. Quickly make it to the designated safety point and call for help immediately. It’s imperative to avoid elevators when exiting a building during a fire, unless specifically directed to use them by a fire department official. Few people can fit in an elevator at one time, therefore it’s best to use stairs in order to avoid stampedes toward the elevator. Moreover, elevator shafts can quickly fill with smoke, and if the building loses power residents can be stuck in a noxious environment indefinitely.

Dealing with building fires can be a harrowing ordeal and oftentimes surreal. It’s something we read about in the papers and watch on the news, but with just a few missteps, any building could be the subject of such a disaster. Keeping buildings up to code with all its resources like detectors, sprinklers and extinguishers will make it that much more likely to prevent a fire. And, of course, always stay informed. As they say, knowledge is power.

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