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What Are the Top Causes of Fires in Apartment Buildings?

By October 29, 2019 Fire Safety

Any building is at risk for fires, though causes vary with the structure and how it’s used. Even among residential fires, the risks can be very different, depending on whether it’s a single-family residence or a multifamily dwelling such as an apartment complex, condominium, townhouse or row house.

Multifamily residences have a distinct profile when it comes to fires. Because these buildings have shared heating and air conditioning systems that are maintained by professionals hired by building management, they have fewer fires related to heating systems than single-family residences. 

Multifamily residences are less likely to have individual fireplaces, so apartment buildings have a much lower rate of fires related to chimneys, fireplaces and fireplace maintenance. And, because of the stringent building codes that apartment buildings are required to pass, they have fewer fires caused by electrical problems related to construction and maintenance.  

All of that is good news for apartment building owners and managers, but it doesn’t mean that multifamily residences are without their challenges when it comes to fires. The top causes of apartment fires serve as a reminder that everyday tasks can quickly create a life-threatening emergency when the situation goes awry.

Leading Causes of Apartment Fires

While cooking fires are the leading cause of home fires in both single-family and multifamily residences, they are much more prevalent in multifamily dwellings. Single-family residences have many other sources that cause fires, such as faulty electrical equipment and heating mechanisms. In apartments, however, an overwhelming 74 percent of fires are caused by cooking — which is nearly twice the number of cooking fires seen in other residential buildings.    

The top five causes of apartment fires, according to The National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), are:   

  1.       Cooking – 73.6%
  2.       Heating – 5.2%
  3.       Appliances – 2.8%
  4.       Open flame – 2.6%
  5.       Other/unintentional/careless – 2.6%

In its report, “Multifamily Residential Building Fires (2013-2015),” FEMA outlined the nature and causes of multifamily residential fires and compared them to single-family residence fires. The NFIRS divides residential fires into two categories: confined and non-confined.

Confined fires are those that are confined to specific objects or types of equipment, such as remaining confined to a cooking pot or the chimney. Those fires are smaller and less severe and rarely result in serious injury or major property damage.

While less dangerous and destructive, confined fires still pose a major threat, as they account for about 71 percent of apartment fires. And an overwhelming majority of them were caused by cooking fires. In fact, 90 percent of confined fires (and 69 percent of all fires) in apartment buildings between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. were caused by cooking.   

 The Threat of Non-Confined Apartment Fires

Non-confined fires are a much greater threat to property owners and tenants of multifamily residences. While cooking plays a smaller role in non-confined fires, it still contributed nearly 21 percent of all non-confined fires in apartment buildings and again ranked as the leading cause of that type of fire.           

Appliances were the next leading cause of non-confined fires, accounting for 11 percent of those incidents, followed by other unknown or “careless” reasons in 10 percent of the cases.

In nearly a third of all non-confined fires (33.2 percent), the flames originated in cooking areas/the kitchen. That makes the kitchen the most likely place for a non-confined fire to begin, followed distantly by bedrooms (12.9 percent) and common areas, such as the den, living room or family room (6.1 percent). In 32 percent of all non-confined fires, the fire not only spread beyond the place and object of origin, but it spread to other rooms. Nearly half of all non-contained fires were caused by human error and misuse of a product or material, and 12 percent of fires were from neglect or leaving equipment unattended. That’s not surprising, given that the National Fire Protection Association reports that unattended cooking is the leading cause of cooking fires.

Although smoke alarms were present in 63 percent of all multifamily residence fires in the U.S. from 2013 to 2015, investigating fire officials were only able to confirm that they were operational in 39 percent of all cases. In 11 percent of buildings with smoke alarms, the alarms failed to operate and in other cases, investigators were unable to determine the operation status of the alarm.

When Smoke Alarms Aren’t Enough

While smoke alarms can save lives and reduce property damage, they depend on the tenant hearing and responding to the alarm. If the occupant has stepped out of the unit and left a burner on, for example, they won’t be alerted by a smoke alarm. Or the alarm may alert them, but not before the fire is too large for them to suppress it or to stop a significant amount of damage from occurring. Smoke alarms do nothing to address the source of the smoke or fire, they are only meant to alert the resident.

For example, in Bel Air, Maryland, in 2017, a woman in a multifamily residence fell asleep on her couch around 11:30 p.m. while cooking something on the stove. She awoke to the sound of her smoke alarm two hours later and found her kitchen on fire. She was able to escape with her two children, but the fire caused $30,000 in damage to the building and an estimated $10,000 in damage to the townhome’s contents.

Implementing a fire suppression system that doesn’t depend on human intervention is one way to create a safer environment in multifamily residences. StoveTop FireStop’s fire suppression system is designed to alert the resident with a loud pop and suppress stovetop fires safely before they cause costly physical damage or, even worse, cost lives.

Because it deploys on its own, it is an automatic solution that ensures greater safety in the kitchen. Once installed, it can effectively reduce the damage done by kitchen fires and create a safer living environment for all tenants. 


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