SOURCE: National Fire Incident Reporting System 5.0, 2005-2007 data
Credit: Oliver Munday/Piece Studio SOURCE: National Fire Incident Reporting System 5.0, 2005-2007 data

Flip on the nightly news and you will undoubtedly hear about a fire damaging a local apartment community. The numbers are sobering: From 2005 to 2007, multifamily building fires accounted for 28 percent of all residential building fires (down just 1 percent from 2003 to 2005 data) with an estimated 108,400 multifamily fires reported to U.S. fire departments each year, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. These fires result in an annual average of 450 deaths, 3,800 injuries, and $1.1 billion in property loss.

Fortunately, 67 percent of multifamily fires are small and confined—predominantly in the form of cooking fires. In fact, cooking is the leading cause of multifamily fires (64.5 percent)—occurring twice as much compared to single-family homes—followed by heating (7 percent); other unintentional or careless fires (3.8 percent); open flames (3.8 percent); and electrical malfunctions (3.2 percent).

The U.S. Fire Administration suggests fires vary greatly between multifamily and single-family housing for a couple of reasons. First, multifamily buildings typically have heating and electrical systems that are regularly maintained by professionals. Second, multifamily buildings have fewer fires related to fireplaces and chimneys because they generally lack this equipment.

Here’s another big difference: 46 percent of non-confined fires in single-family homes tend to extend beyond the room of origin, compared to just 27 percent of non-confined multifamily fires. The leading causes of these larger multifamily fires are electrical malfunctions (13 percent); exposure fires due to spreading flames (12 percent); open flames (12 percent); and arson (12 percent).

Robert Couch, president of Atlanta-based Lane Management, is all too aware of these dangerous flames. At his previous firm, Sterling, Va.-based First Centrum, three senior properties were destroyed by fires, one due to smoking and the other two likely caused by electrical malfunctions. Fortunately, all residents were safely evacuated, which Couch attributes to the firm’s quarterly fire drills. Additionally, Centrum affixes reflective tape, visible to firefighters, to the bottom of unit doorframes for residents who might need extra help.

“We are especially concerned with fires at senior communities because residents don’t always move that quickly,” Couch says.