Fires. They’re unpredictable and dangerous. The best way to protect you and your family is to be armed with the most up-to-date knowledge on fire safety and prevention.
Whether you live in a six-story walk-up or a high-rise building, there are basic fire safety and prevention tips that everyone should know. Achieving these goals will significantly enhance your fire safety and reduce the number of fire-related injuries, fatalities, and property losses in residential buildings of any kind.
Every apartment should be equipped with at least one smoke detector, and batteries should be replaced twice every year.
Never smoke in bed or when you are drowsy. Carelessly handled or discarded cigarettes are the leading cause of fire deaths.
Keep matches and lighters out of reach of children.
Never leave cooking unattended, and keep stovetops clean and free of items that can catch fire.
Never overload electrical outlets. Replace any electrical cord that is cracked or frayed, and never run extension cords under rugs. Also, only use power strips with circuit breakers.
Never obstruct doorways or windows leading to fire escapes or other means of egress. Do not install air conditioners in windows that lead to fire escapes. Report any accumulation of rubbish or obstructions in hallways to the managing agent or the board.
Only install window gates if it is absolutely necessary for security reasons. Do not install window gates with key locks, and only install window gates approved by the fire department or the Board of Standards and Appeals. Familiarize yourself and members of your household with the operation of the window gate, and always maintain the device so that it opens smoothly.
Familiarize yourself and members of your household with the location of all stairwells, fire escapes, and other exits.
Prepare an emergency escape route to use in the event of a fire in the building. Choose a meeting place for members of your household that’s a safe distance from your building.
Always exercise care with candles and fresh cut decorative greens such as Christmas trees and holiday wreaths. If possible, keep them planted or in water. Never place them in public hallways where they might block passage from your apartment. Always keep them away from any flame, particularly fireplaces.
IF FIRE HITS
Following the above fire safety tips is the first step to protecting your family and you. However, should you encounter a fire, there are some general things you should keep in mind:
• Stay calm and do not panic. Notify the fire department as soon as possible.
• Because flame, heat, and smoke rise, generally a fire on a floor below your apartment presents a greater threat to your safety than a fire on a floor above your apartment.
• Do not overestimate your ability to put out a fire. Most fires cannot be easily or safely extinguished. Do not attempt to put the fire out once it begins to quickly spread. If you attempt to put a fire out, make sure you have a clear path of retreat from the room.
• If you decide to exit the building during a fire, close all doors as you exit to confine the fire. Never use the elevator.
• If you are caught in heavy smoke conditions, get down on the floor and crawl. Take short breaths, breathing through your nose.
• If your clothes catch fire, don’t run. Stop, drop, and roll.
Depending on the type of building construction, there are a variety of steps you can take to ensure a safe evacuation in case of a fire. First, determine what type of building you live in. Residential buildings built before 1968 are generally classified either as “fireproof” or “non-fireproof.” Residential buildings built in 1968 or after are classified as either “combustible” or “non-combustible.” Emergency evacuation procedures for these types vary. It is extremely important that you familiarize yourself with your property’s fire safety plan to determine the safest way to exit.
A “non-combustible” or “fireproof” building is a building whose structural components – meaning the supporting elements of the building – are constructed of materials that do not burn or are resistant to fire and therefore will not contribute to the spread. Fire in these types are more likely to be contained in the apartment or space in which they start and are less likely to spread inside the walls to other apartments or floors. However, this does not mean that the building is immune to fire. Though high-rise residential buildings are constructed to be fireproof and fires are usually contained in the areas they start in, most of what’s inside, including furniture and other belongings, can burn and create a tremendous amount of smoke and heat.
If there is a fire in your apartment, the first step is to evacuate the unit. Close, but do not lock, all of the doors in the apartment. Alert others living on your floor and activate the fire alarm is there is one. Go down the nearest stairway and call the fire department from a floor below the fire or from a street fire alarm box outside.
However, in a fireproof high-rise building, if the fire is not in your apartment, you should stay inside rather than enter smoke-filled hallways. This is especially important if the fire is on a floor below your apartment. Keep your door closed and seal the door with duct tape or wet sheets and towels. Seal all ventilators and any other openings where smoke may enter. Turn off all air conditioners. Fill your bathtub with water. If the front door gets hot, wet it down. Unless there are severe flames or smoke, open your windows a few inches at the top and bottom. Do not break the windows because they may need to be closed later. Call the fire department with your apartment number and a description of the conditions in your apartment. Firefighters can then be directed to your location. If you feel you are in grave danger, open a window and wave a bed sheet for firefighters to spot you.
These tips, if followed, can help mitigate the instances of injury and increase your fire safety in high-rise, non-combustible/fireproof buildings. In general, every member of your household should know the layout of your floor, the location of all stair exits on your floor, the number of doors between your apartment and the exit, where your apartment key is located, and the location of fire alarms boxes in your building.
A “combustible” or “non-fireproof” building has structural components – such as wood – that will burn if exposed to fire and can contribute to the spread of the fire. In these types of buildings, fire can spread inside walls and to other apartments and floors. Your plan of action in case of a fire in this type of building differs from a “non-combustible/fireproof” building.
If there is a fire in your apartment, the very first step you should take is to close the door to the room where the fire is located, and then exit your apartment and call the fire department from a safe location outside of your building. If the fire is in your building, first feel the doorknob and the space between the door and the frame with the back of your hand. If the door is hot, do not open it and find another means of egress from the apartment such as a fire escape. If the door is not hot, and the hallways are not filled with smoke, exit the building using the stairs. Never use the elevator. Once outside, call the fire department. If you become trapped in your apartment, open a window at the top to let out heat and smoke and at the bottom to breathe. If you cannot get out, wave a sheet out of the window. Once you have evacuated a building, do not go back into a fire for anything.
The key to ensuring the safety of you and your household is the development of a fire escape plan. Have a household meeting to discuss what to do if there is a fire. Practice your plan and designate a safe meeting place outside of your building. In addition to your household’s plan, you should also have a building fire safety plan.
FIRE SAFETY PLANS
As required by Local Law 10 of 1999, owners of residential apartment buildings with three or more units must develop and distribute to building occupants and building service employees a fire safety plan. This should contain:
• The address of the premises.
• The name and address of the owner or the owner’s representative.
• The number of floors in the building above and below ground level.
• The year the building was constructed.
• Whether the building is combustible/non-fireproof or non-combustible/fireproof.
• Whether the building is equipped with a fire sprinkler system, and if so, what areas the system covers.
• Whether the building is equipped with a fire alarm system, and if so, the locations of the manual pull stations.
• A list of all exits.
• Evacuation instructions.
In addition, landlords are required to post fire safety notices on the inside of every apartment front door clearly explaining what to do in the event of a fire. The building owner is required to notify residents and those working in the building of any material change in building conditions that may affect the content of the fire safety plan. This notice must be given within 60 days of that alteration. Temporary repairs and routine maintenance work are not included in this. Also, all new occupants must be provided with a copy of the plan at the time the lease, sublease, or other agreement allowing occupancy of the unit is signed, or no later than the date of occupancy on the premises. Building service employees must be presented with this plan no later than the date upon which the employee begins work. Distribution of the plan must be documented by a United States Postal Service certificate of mailing or other official proof of mailing or, if hand delivered, by receipt signed by an occupant of the unit or building service employee, or by sworn affidavit of the employee or agent of the owner who actually delivered it. The date and manner of delivery, and the units and occupants to which it was delivered, must also be identified.
Under this law, all newly constructed buildings housing four or more families and those that have undergone substantial renovations are required to install automatic sprinklers. In addition, a flow test of the sprinkler system is mandated at least once every 30 months in these buildings.
Over the years, the city of New York along with the fire department, has set forth a variety of fire codes designed to keep residential buildings safe. You can find these local laws and fire codes, in addition to fire safety and prevention tips, at www.nyc.gov/fdny. Click on R.C.N.Y. to view local laws and fire codes in their full language.
The steps outlined here will help you respond safely if you should encounter a fire. Remember: the best protection is education.