15 tips to reduce the risk of apartment fires – and what to do in an emergency.
Smoke billowed from a seventh-floor balcony as sirens sounded in the distance.
It was a Monday evening in May and firefighters rushed to an apartment building in Kensington where one of the homes was alight.
Evacuated residents watched from the street as dozens of firefighters used 13 fire service appliances to battle the blaze.
In this case the fire was controlled within 20 minutes.
According to WA’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services, an average of 10 fires occur every year in WA multi-storey residential buildings, with discarded cigarettes the most common cause.
It warns the fires can result in serious injury or death to the people living there.
The Grenfell Tower disaster in the UK on June 14, 2017 laid bare the deadly capability of a fire in an apartment building.
Within minutes of a fire starting in the kitchen of a fourth floor flat, it had raced up the exterior of the 23-storey building, an inferno fuelled by combustible cladding. Seventy-two people died.
In the US in January, 17 people perished from smoke inhalation in a Bronx apartment building, reportedly after an electric heater sparked a fire in a unit in the 19-storey building.
WA’s Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety says Grenfell and other fires around the world highlight the importance of fire safety in apartment buildings.
To help prevent fires, building owners and managers must be vigilant in the maintenance and routine servicing of fire safety measures and have building emergency response plans and procedures in place, it says.
Here are some ways communities can safeguard against a fire disaster.
Ensure fire safety equipment such as smoke alarms, fire extinguishers and sprinkler heads are in good working order. Remember, smoke alarms need to be replaced every 10 years. More information is available here.
Keep fire stairs and escape routes clear of obstacles. Sprinkler heads should not be obstructed by stored items. Make sure power boards are properly maintained, used and in a location that is clean and properly vented to avoid dust and moisture build up.
Promptly report and fix faulty fire safety issues such as malfunctioning escape lighting, smoke alarms, damaged signs and fire doors.
Don’t prop open fire doors. They stop the spread of fire and smoke.
Owners are encouraged to ask the building manager or the strata committee for information on any installed fire alarm system. Know what to do if it is activated.
Seek professional advice if you are unsure about the condition or compliance of the fire safety systems in the building. WA laws require owners of Class two to nine buildings (which includes residential apartments) to maintain the building’s safety measures. This responsibility is specified in Division 2A of the Building Regulations 2012.
Raise concerns about a building or its external cladding with the strata company or the relevant local government authority. According to DMIRS, the cladding on many apartment buildings was checked during WA’s Statewide Cladding Audit. A quarterly status update in March reported remedial works were underway at five buildings and interim additional safety measures were in place at nine buildings where work is yet to start.
Don’t have excessive amounts of combustible materials stored in or around the building. Reduce the size of gas bottles on BBQs and outdoor heaters from 9kgs to 3.5kgs to reduce the impact if there is a fire. The maximum size of a LP gas cylinder that can be used or stored on a balcony is 10kg. View more information here.
Do not charge Lithium-Ion batteries or battery-operated equipment in an apartment and charge them away from flammable materials.
Encourage smokers to extinguish cigarettes in a deep ashtray.
Residual current devices (RCDs or safety switches) can help detect electrical faults that may cause fires, as well as offering protection against some electric shocks. Before a residential property can be leased or sold, it must have at least two RCDs protecting all power and lighting circuits. Test RCDs every three months. View more information here.
Apartment owners with halogen down-lights may wish to consider switching to LEDs, which generate less heat.
All gas appliances require servicing by a licensed gas fitter to ensure they remain safe to operate. Servicing is usually recommended every two years. If the appliance is more than 10 years old, it should be serviced annually.
To prevent build-up of deadly carbon monoxide gas, portable outdoor gas appliances (such as barbecues and patio heaters) must only be used in an outdoor area with all blinds and enclosures up. Many balconies do not qualify as an outdoor area.
Have an evacuation plan – and make sure owners and residents are familiar with it. People who require assistance to evacuate should establish a Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan (PEEP) with key people identified and clear processes for everyone involved.
DFES says a fire can become fatal in three minutes.
Residents can talk to family and neighbours about how they would escape if there was a fire – and practice an evacuation.
It provides the following advice in the case of a fire.
Respond immediately and evacuate to the pre-planned safe meeting place or building’s assembly point.
If there is smoke, crawl low to the ground to the exit.
Don’t use lifts in a fire. Use emergency exits and fire stairs.
Get out, stay out and call triple zero.
If it is unsafe to leave, close all the windows and doors to stop smoke entering the apartment and to restrict fire spread.
Call 000, give them the apartment number and follow the operator’s advice.