Fire in strata complexes has the potential to compromise the safety of all residents. But what should you do to keep both yourself and your loved ones protected in the event a blaze occurs within your community?
Apartment fires can occur anywhere, any time. Last November 250 residents had to be evacuated from a 20-storey apartment building in inner Sydney after it was engulfed in smoke from a nearby bin fire.
It followed an incident two months earlier when a heater sparked a blaze in an apartment block in Sydney’s west, causing 500 residents onto the streets. Just three months prior to that a man lost his life after an out of control fire in a Newtown unit complex caused the building’s roof to collapse.
These were just three of the 4,500 residential fires the highly skilled firefighters at Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) – the busiest service in Australia and one of the world’s largest urban fire and rescue services – were called to last year.
FRNSW Chief Superintendent Michael Morris says the leading cause of home fires in the state is leaving cooking unattended, with almost half of all residential fires starting in the kitchen “when people get distracted and pots and pans are left unattended on stovetops, or when kettles are left to boil down”.
Whilst fire regulations can differ from state to state. Morris says while the best way to keep your family safe is to prevent fires from happening in the first place, there are a number of steps residents in strata communities can take to help minimise the damage caused by an unexpected fire.
When alerted to a fire in the building, residents should respond immediately by evacuating to a pre-planned safe meeting place, and not wasting time by investigating what’s happened or trying to secure valuables.
In the event of a fire, remember to get out, stay out and call Triple Zero (000). Never go back inside a burning building.
It’s important when evacuating the building to choose stairwells over a lift as lifts are neither smoke or fire resistant, he says.
“If you use a lift it may open on the floor that has the fire exposing you to heat, smoke and additional danger. You should evacuate using the fire stairs if it’s safe to do so. Fire stairs are designed to provide a safe environment that will lead you away from the building.”
In the event of a fire, a working smoke alarm used in conjunction with an escape plan will greatly increase your chances of getting out safely. In addition to the minimum legal requirement of one smoke alarm per level, FRNSW recommends installing smoke alarms in all rooms where people sleep and the hallways leading to sleeping areas. Ideally, the smoke alarms should be hard wired (connected to the electrical wiring) and interconnected, so that if one activates they will all sound an alarm.
The plan of escape should provide a detailed floor plan of your apartment or townhouse, including two ways of escape from each room as well as a designated meeting place outside the building, Morris says.
Long-term strata owner, Timothy Lee, says reports surrounding the casual evacuation of some of the residents at the Neo200 apartment fire in Melbourne recently does not surprise him. Nor does the frightening news that some residents had covered over their smoke alarms with plastic to prevent them from operating.
“I’ve seen it first-hand where residents have ignored smoke alarms because they thought it was just another neighbour burning toast. But to cover up their smoke alarms to prevent them from working in the event of smoke? That’s just crazy and incredibly dangerous for everyone in that building,” he says.
Lee has also observed residents using the lift during fire evacuations.
“The rules clearly state not to use the lift in the event of fire, yet I’ve seen people pile in to evacuate quickly rather than using the stairs. Whether it’s sheer ignorance, poor education, plain stupidity or a combination of all the above, it is ludicrous to ignore safety instructions.
“Commercial buildings conduct regular mandatory fire drills, yet high-rise apartments don’t, even though the number of people living in these high-rises could be far higher than those working in commercial buildings.
“Perhaps the fire drills that are mandatory for all commercial buildings, as well as general fire safety education, should be introduced for high-rises too. Just like hotels have fire evacuation procedures featured on the back of each room door, apartments could have the same, and not just featured in common areas,” Lee says.
The Department of Planning says that under the law all apartments, blocks of flats, residences over shops and caretaker flats are required to have working smoke alarms fitted in every corridor or hallway associated with a bedroom.
If there is no corridor or hallway, working smoking alarms are required between the part of the unit containing the bedroom and the remainder of the dwelling, as well as in any storey not containing bedrooms. In the case of the latter, functioning alarms should be located in the path of travel most likely to be used by those evacuating the unit.
For ease of access, Morris says door and window keys should be kept in or next to locks, while BBQs and heaters on balconies should be at least a metre away from all objects.
“If you live in a high-rise apartment building, learn and practice your building’s evacuation plan. Exit points should be clearly identifiable by an illuminated green and white exit sign. Familiarise yourself with the exit points in your building and where they lead.”
Once a fire has been extinguished, residents must check with firefighters before re-entering the building as the building may still be unsafe, Morris cautions.
It’s also vital to be extra vigilant during winter, as the cooler months see a 10% increase in the number of home fires in the bedroom and lounge, he says.
“To keep these areas of the house fire-safe, you should always keep household items ‘a metre from the heater’ and turn off heaters and electric blankets before leaving home or getting into bed.”
Most battery-powered smoke alarms, which cost around $10, can be easily installed by the home owner and do not require professional installation. However hard-wired smoke alarms will need to be installed by a licensed professional. Elderly residents can receive assistance from the NSW Fire Brigade through its Smoke Alarm Battery Replacement for the Elderly program.
You can also contact your local FRNSW station to arrange a Home Fire Safety Check. Firefighters can visit your home at a pre-arranged time to install a smoke alarm and provide fire safety tips.