Apartment building safety has improved steadily over the years, but those improvements–particularly regarding fires–have been won at the cost of many lost lives. "If you look at the fire code,, you can see [a number of] things that were put in place after major disasters, when people were more accepting of changes," says Dan Jones, the fire chief in Chapel Hill, N.C. He even has a name for such disasters: "teachable moments."
"Any time you have a structure fire where there's significant injury, property damage, or loss of life, the news media focus on the issue, and fire marshals have the attention of the public and elected officials," says Jones. A decade ago, after a fraternity fire killed five students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, he seized the teachable moment to get a local law passed requiring that all college residences be retrofitted with sprinkler systems.
Such post-tragedy public attention often has resulted in stricter codes and better-trained code officials. They are more aggressive, better equipped to educate property managers, and will more readily explain why things are important or required, according to Jones. But stricter codes and better-trained officials can't cover all the bases, and owners of apartment buildings need to take action to protect residents and property.