Survive a Fire in an Apartment Building

Did you see this news from Los Angeles? A month ago, fire broke out in the 11th floor of a 25-story apartment building. Flames were visible through the broken window of the apartment; Smoke poured out and up. Ultimately, hundreds of people evacuated, and there were several injuries.

Happily, though, the fire was contained on one floor. Most people were able to return to apartments that were undamaged. What went right?

The danger of fire in a high-rise is LESS than in other structures.

According to the National Fire Protection Agency, only 3% of structural fires are in high-rise buildings. (Their definition of high-rise is 7 stories or higher. Other agencies define it differently. For this article, I'm defining high-rise as anything above the reach of the local fire department's highest ladder.)

When a fire does happen in a high-rise, there is statistically less damage.

This is because hotels and apartment buildings, where about half the high-rise fires take place, are far more likely to have:

  • Fire-resistive construction . For example, exterior walls, floors and roof made of concrete-encased steel, cement and steel with spray-on coatings can resist fire for hours. Fire doors, meant to close off an area to restrict spread of a fire and to allow for safe egress, are rated for how resistive they are.
  • Fire protection systems . Depending on the size of the building, it may have fire alarms, automatic sprinklers, camera surveillance, controlled access and even constant monitoring.

Given this background, what emergency preparedness actions should you take if you are considering an apartment in a high-rise?

If you live in an apartment, any apartment, the first questions go to you: Do you have working smoke alarms, and do you test them regularly? Do you have fire extinguishers, particularly in the kitchen? Cooking-related incidents are the cause of most home fires.

Now, find answers to these questions about the building:

  1. What fire safety systems does the building have? In the Los Angeles fire, the building had been built before fire sprinkler systems were required .
  2. Do maps show the exit stairs? In an emergency, the fire department will take over the elevators, so don't plan to get out that way.
  3. Take a tour. Are fire exits kept unlocked? Are fire doors un-impeded or kept closed?
  4. Does management have a fire evacuation plan? Are any fire drills held?
  5. Will you recognize the sound of a fire alarm? Is there a public announcement system?

If a fire breaks out, do you know what to do?

These recommendations come from the US Fire Administration. In Los Angeles, people following these rules fared better than those who did.

  1. Call the fire department. Don't assume anyone else has called.
  2. When you hear an alarm, feel the exit door with the back of your hand.
  3. If it's cool , open the door carefully to check for smoke or flames. If none, head for the nearest exit.
  4. If you encounter smoke, turn back. In Los Angeles, civilian injuries were all smoke-related.
  5. If the door is warm, or you see smoke, do not exit! Stay in your apartment. Stuff the cracks around the door with dowels or bedding. Turn off air conditioning. The point is to keep smoke from coming in.
  6. Call the fire department to let them know where you are. Signal from a window; Don't leave it open.
  7. Listen for instructions from the fire department.
  8. Be patient. It may take hours for a high-rise to be fully evacuated.

Nearly 40% of Americans live in rented properties, and most of them in apartments. Who do you know who lives in a multi-family building or high-rise apartment? Share this information! Being prepared, and knowing how to respond, will save their lives in an emergency.