How fire safe is your off-campus home?
Housing options abound in Austin, and the majority of university students live off-campus. Unfortunately, statistics show the risk of fire-related injury is significantly higher in off-campus residential facilities; almost 80% of fire-related deaths in student housing occur in off-campus facilities, according to the Center for Campus Fire Safety. The leading factors in these fatalities often include: lack of automatic fire sprinklers, missing or disabled smoke alarms, careless disposal of smoking materials, and alcohol consumption.
Since off-campus housing presents higher fire risks, it is important for you to possess basic fire safety awareness, and familiarize yourself with the specific fire safety issues of your off-campus home. Ideally, you should address the following fire safety concerns when choosing an off-campus residence, and use them as guidelines for a safer life off-campus. Although some of the suggested precautions may not be available in single family homes and duplexes, and may not even be required by certain building codes, you should consider all of these issues when answering the question, “How safe is your off-campus home?”
When looking for a new place to live, you consider many factors, like proximity to campus, and laundry facilities. Safety should also be a major factor you think about before renting an apartment or house. The BE SAFE off-campus housing safety guide (PDF) is designed to assist you in making educated choices for housing. The Texas State Fire Marshal's Office has also put together a video guide on picking a safe apartment.
When was the last Fire Marshal inspection?
The facility should be inspected by the local fire marshal on a periodic basis, and the property manager should receive a copy of the inspection report. This report should list any code violations noted and indicate whether the violations have been corrected. Ask the property’s management for a copy of the most recent fire inspection report, and if they cannot provide a copy, or if the report is more than a year old, ask them to request a new inspection of the facility. Note: The local fire department does not conduct inspections of single-family dwellings or duplexes. However, they will often conduct a safety survey of the home if requested by the owner.
Are safety systems tested and maintained?
The fire sprinkler, fire alarm, and emergency power systems should be inspected and tested every year by a licensed contractor who will provide the property manager with a copy of the inspection report. Ask the property manager for a copy of the most recent inspection reports, and ask if deficiencies noted on the reports have been corrected.
Does the facility have a fire alarm system?
A fire alarm system improves safety by providing early detection and warning should a fire occur. The system should include:
- Manual pull-boxes, which are located on each floor adjacent to exit stair, and installed by exits located on the ground floor
- Smoke detectors installed on the ceilings of interior hallways, which are designed to sound the building alarm when the detector activates
- Audible and visual warning devices, which should at least be audible in all portions of the unit, including bathrooms and other remote areas
Note: Apartment complexes designed so that each unit exits directly to the exterior are normally not provided with fire alarm systems.
Are there smoke alarms in bedrooms and dwelling units?
There should be at least one smoke alarm in each bedroom, and at least one on every level of the home. Ideally, the smoke alarm system should comply with the fire safety awareness guidelines for smoke alarms.
Assure that the smoke alarms in the residence have properly charged batteries and back-up power sources, and ask the property manager how often smoke alarms are tested and how often the batteries are replaced. If the smoke alarm system is inadequate, insist the property manager install a proper system, or ask if you can have a system installed yourself.
Sprinklers and Extinguishers
Is the facility protected by a fire sprinkler system?
A properly installed and maintained automatic fire sprinkler system will control or extinguish a fire occurring within the facility. Residential fire sprinkler systems have value in all facilities, but are especially important in high-rise residential buildings and residential buildings that utilize interior hallways and stairs for exit purposes.
Are portable fire extinguishers provided?
Check whether your unit has a portable fire extinguisher, and, if not, see whether extinguishers are installed in hallways or common areas that are accessible to building occupants. Also, check fire extinguishers to make sure they are provided with a current inspection tag.
You should receive fire extinguisher training before attempting to fight a fire with a portable extinguisher.
Does each bedroom and living area have an emergency escape route?
As a general rule, you should have two escape routes from each bedroom and each dwelling unit. The front door is usually the primary escape route, but an additional route should be available incase the primary route becomes impassable. Check to ensure each bedroom and living area has access to a secondary means of escape, for example an exterior window. Note: Secondary escape routes from individual units are particularly important in buildings not protected by a fire sprinkler system.
Do you need to travel through an interior hallway to exit?
Interior hallways may fill with smoke and quickly become impassable if a fire occurs in a room adjacent to the hallway. If you must travel through an interior hallway to reach the exterior of the building, make sure the following smoke barriers are provided between the hallway and adjoining rooms:
- Solid doors opening into the hallway, which do not contain louvers, which are slatted openings generally located in the lower portion of the door
- Self-closing devices on all hallway doors, which you can test by opening the door fully and then releasing it … Once released, the door should close and latch within a few seconds
In addition, there should be smoke alarms in all interior hallways occupants have to travel through to reach the building’s exterior. These smoke alarms will activate and warn occupants before the hallway becomes impassable, in the event a fire starts and smoke enters the hallway.
Do you need to travel down an interior stairway to exit?
Similar to hallways, interior stairs can fill with smoke and become impassable if there are no adequate fire barriers. If you must travel down an interior stairway to reach the building’s exterior, make sure there are fire doors on every level that will prevent fire and smoke from entering the exit stairwells. Check to ensure stairwell doors have closing and latching devices, and test the closing devices in the same manner you tested hallway doors. Also, confirm there are no door-stops installed and that stairway doors are not blocked open with wood wedges or similar devices.
Doors opening into the stairwell should bear a label that identifies the fire rating of the door. The label is usually found on the hinge-side of the door.
Does the facility have emergency lighting?
Buildings’ main electrical systems are often damaged in the early stages of fires, so it is important to have emergency lighting for interior hallways and stairs during the loss of primary building power. Make sure there is emergency lighting if you must travel through interior hallways or stairs to reach the exterior of the building.
Doors and Windows
Are there deadbolt locks on exit doors?
Exit doors from individual units should have single-cylinder deadbolt locks, which are opened by a key from the outside and a thumb-latch from the inside. Check to ensure double-cylinder deadbolt locks are not installed. (Double-cylinder deadbolts require a key to open them from either side of the door, so if you cannot find the key easily in the event of a fire you may become trapped within your own room or dwelling unit.)
Is there an accessible escape window in every bedroom?
In many cases, an exterior window is the emergency means of escape from bedrooms. For this reason, you should ensure the following:
- You must be able to open the escape window from the inside. Exterior windows are often nailed shut, or secured in some manner to protect against unauthorized entry, but you should make sure the window is secured in a way that allows you to exit easily.
- The window opening must be large enough for you to fit through. Open the window to make sure it is big enough for you to pass though, bearing in mind even the largest window panes do not always open fully and may inhibit your exit.
- You must be able to safely reach the ground outside. You should either be able to reach the ground safely from the windowsill on your own, or purchase a rope ladder for emergency escape. (If the window is located within 20 feet of the ground, and the ground is reasonably level, firefighters may be able to use ground ladders to reach the window. If the window faces an access drive, and is located within 75 feet of the ground, firefighters may be able to use aerial ladders to reach the window.)
- Security bars should open from the inside without a key or tool. If an escape window has security bars, make sure you know how to open the bars, and determine if they can be opened without the use of a key or tool. Try opening the bars while wearing a blindfold to simulate lighting conditions you may encounter during a fire emergency at night.
Do barbecue grills and dumpsters keep their distance?
Barbecue grills should not be permitted on exterior balconies or covered areas directly adjacent to the building. A number of residential buildings have been damaged or destroyed by fires that started when barbecue grills were left unattended.
Trash dumpsters should be located at least 10 feet away from the building. Many building fires have started from dumpster fires that migrated into nearby structures.
Are natural gas pipes tested and maintained regularly?
If the building is provided with natural gas, the gas piping should be pressure tested on a periodic basis to ensure there are no leaks in the system. This pressure testing should be conducted by a licensed plumber, so ask the property manager to provide a copy of the most recent test results.
For more information about safety in off-campus housing, please review the daily safety tips and apartment-hunter’s checklist on The University of Texas at Austin’s LIVE SAFE off-campus housing safety guide (PDF).