Fire & Smoke Damage: What Multi-Family Property Owners Should Know

Know the Threats and Be Prepared

When it comes to fire safety, multi-unit residential property owners and managers face the unique responsibility of protecting the wellbeing of other families’ homes.  Help reduce the threat of fire and prevent further catastrophe by being prepared.

On a cold morning in the Bronx, New York, in January 2022, a space heater in a duplex unit of a high-rise apartment ignited, sparking massive flames and sending thick black smoke through the nineteen floors of the apartment complex.  The disaster resulted in 44 injuries and 17 deaths, including 8 children.

This was one of the most catastrophic fires in North America in decades, but just one fire of many with a horrific outcome in the first month of 2022.  In the United States alone:

  • A blaze that was started when a child accidentally ignited a Christmas tree killed a dozen people in an apartment complex in Philadelphia.
  • A Portland, Maine, apartment fire sent 5 people to the hospital.
  • Flames originating at a Dallas apartment complex sparked multiple house fires when the wind blew embers into a nearby community.
  • An apartment fire in San Antonio caused the roof of the apartment building to collapse, completely destroying 12 units.
  • 24 units were destroyed by a fire in a Houston apartment, damaging the structural integrity of the entire building. This was just one of many Texas apartment building fires in the month.

Common Threats

As these cases demonstrate, fire can affect people of all backgrounds in all geographic locations.

Housing fires have any number of causes, including but not limited to:

  • Faulty, degraded or damaged electrical wiring
  • Unattended candles or cigarettes
  • Pots, pans or other dishes overheating in the kitchen
  • Lithium batteries sparking or combusting
  • Overstressed extension cords
  • Improperly stored chemicals or natural gas cannisters
  • Misused or malfunctioning heating or cooling units, including space heaters

An Increased Threat

A blaze in a multi-family residence can start any number of ways, but the harm often isn’t restricted to the area where the incident began.  While the fire department’s aim is to minimize the damage to a vicinity as close to the source of origin as possible, firefighters face unique challenges in multi-unit buildings.

As communities grow and the need for housing increases, many structures that were once zoned for commercial use or for single family residence have been modified to house multiple families.  In the process, safety hazards have not always been considered.  Firefighters faced with putting out a fire in these buildings can run into myriad hazards, including:

  • Overcrowding
  • Unorthodox building construction
  • Antiquated or insufficient electrical wiring
  • Hard to find utility shutoffs

Further complicating matters, shared heating and cooling in a multi-unit home can create chutes for smoke, soot and asphyxiation-causing-gases to rush through the building.  While a fire in a single room is burning, thick black smoke may be spreading toxic fumes, not only to other units in the building, but outside to adjacent properties.

A Rapid Threat

It’s important to be aware of just how fast a fire can spread in a multi-family property.  Apartment fires can quickly spread heat and smoke throughout a building, affecting all occupants.  In just thirty seconds a fire that was a minor inconvenience for one can turn into a life-threatening emergency for all.

A fire can quickly raise a room’s temperature to 600 degrees Fahrenheit, melting parts of the home and forcefully driving smoke odor and toxic soot into porous walls, insulation and furniture.  Within minutes, dense smoke can begin to discolor appliances, furniture and upholstery, rapidly turning the most porous materials yellow and filling them with toxic odor.  It then begins to stain grout, fiberglass and marble countertops and soon thereafter permanently tarnishes some metals.

The Threat of Smoke and Soot

Not only can this smoke and soot visually damage a home, it can also cause dangerous respiratory problems for inhabitants, even after the blaze has been extinguished.

Smoke can carry dangerous toxins from:

  • Melted plastics
  • Burned wood
  • Scorched upholstery
  • Unabated asbestos

These odors and hazardous chemicals can penetrate the deep recesses of furniture, clothing, walls and structures, potentially causing infections, allergies and lung diseases.  And just as residual toxins from embedded soot can be inhaled, it can also be absorbed through bare skin when touching damaged items.

The Threat of Water

The large amount of water used to extinguish a fire can lead to a whole host of its own problems.  Not only can it soak rugs, carpets and upholstery at the source of the fire, it can also penetrate floorboards and building structures, causing water damage and mold in units that weren’t directly affected by the blaze.

Water can also give soot an oily stickiness, making it harder to remove.  More often than not, smoke, soot and water damage abatement is impossible for anyone but properly trained and equipped restoration teams.

The Threat of Wildfire

While the general danger of fire concerns everyone equally, properties in drier areas may face the unique threat of wildfire.  Even when buildings are not in danger of catching fire, the smoke produced by wildfire can affect residents as it drifts into their communities.

The best way to reduce the exposure to wildfire and wildfire smoke is to be prepared.  Keeping HVAC systems serviced, properties clean of debris and generally understanding the hazards and risks of the region can help avoid wildfire-related events that are costly and difficult to overcome.

Nursing Homes and Healthcare Facilities

Fires threaten not only apartments and residential building complexes, they threaten nursing homes and other multiple-occupant healthcare facilities as well.

In a healthcare setting, a malfunctioning device can produce smoke that can not only damage the machine but get into the HVAC system tied to other patient care or living areas.  These types of facilities require a higher level of cleanliness and must follow strict safety regulations for the sake of patients, staff and visitors, so the smallest puff of smoke in the wrong area can be as detrimental as a big blaze.

The Best Defense Is Preparedness

No property is 100% secure against fire and smoke, but property owners and managers who focus on preventative maintenance and fire preparedness can help reduce the risk of loss and damage in their building.  Maintaining properly functioning sprinklers, fire alarms and easily accessible fire extinguishers is an absolutely essential measure in fire safety, as is keeping stairwells, hallways and outside fire escapes clearly labeled and free of obstruction.

Insurance companies commonly serve as an authority in determining the fire suppression and alarm requirements of a housing complex, as providers often won’t insure apartment buildings that don’t have particular systems in place. Ultimately, it’s the city, county or other local jurisdiction that will determine the necessary number of sprinklers, alarms, extinguishers and exits required in a building. While these vary from region to region, all areas in North America have parameters in place that must be followed by owners and tenants alike.

With all this in mind, property owners may want to consider contacting a professional restoration company to help them assess their building’s risks and formulate a recovery plan before an incident occurs.  A restoration company will work with property owners and managers to facilitate a plan that’s unique to the specific needs of the property.

This includes:

  • An on-site walk-through and assessment of the property
  • Identification of important locations, such as water and gas shutoff valves
  • Establish communication between on-site personnel and the restoration team’s emergency contacts
  • Establish protocols and procedures if catastrophe strikes

This process will put a plan in place that minimizes downtime and gets tenants back in their homes quicker.

Recovery After a Fire

The type of fire dictates both how long a fire investigation can take and how soon the restoration process can begin.  Fires originating from an electrical malfunction can typically be investigated and determined quickly, and the restoration team’s work can start in earnest once the fire department and insurance company give their approval.  Fires of unknown origin, or suspected arson, can take days or even months for fire investigators to clear, delaying the start of recovery.

As soon as they can, the restoration team will begin their work.  If the building is deemed structurally sound, an industrial hygienist will assess the health risks and will give a recommendation for a course of action.  The restoration team will then begin the process of mobilizing fans, air scrubbers and charcoal filters to restore clean air and start encapsulating any salvageable areas.  The team will work quickly to get tenants back in their homes as fast as possible.

First Onsite’s Response

The goal of a restoration team is to do just that, restore as much as possible without having to replace.  First Onsite offers a personal yet professional response, with advanced techniques that are often able to save even the most affected items.  Even before the all-clear has been given, it is always a good idea to formulate a plan with a restoration professional to guarantee the best outcome.  We work with property owners, managers, tenants and insurance companies to determine the best course of action, tailored to every scenario.

First Onsite is your trusted, full-service fire restoration and reconstruction company, serving North America and beyond.  We partner with multi-family property owners to prepare for the threat of catastrophe and to react after disaster strikes.  Our team is backed by national resources, and we scale to meet the needs of each property, regardless of size.  Although fire can be a life-changing event, understanding the threats and steps to take after disaster strikes can help get affected residents back into their homes more quickly.


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