It was 5:20 a.m. on July 24, 2005, when CEO Bill Donges got the phone call: The Lane Co. condominium project under way in downtown Atlanta's bustling Atlantic Station community was on fire. The news got worse when the four-alarm fire spread to Lane's already-built Art Foundry community nearby.
No one was killed, but all 322 condos in the projectknown as the element were destroyed, and 80 Art Foundry units were damaged. Estimates of the damages from what turned out to be arson topped $5 million, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Lane Co. was far from alone in facing fire: There were some 94,000 apartment fires reported in the United States in 2004 (the most recent year for which figures are available), according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
Fuel on the Fire
The No. 1 cause of these fires is cooking, which accounts for almost half of them. Arson is second, and smoking is third. Fires caused by smoking lead to more than one-third of deaths in apartment fires. Thus, while about 48 percent of fires originated in the kitchen last year, almost 30 percent of deaths occurred in common rooms and lounge areas, according to 2001 figures from the National Fire Incident Reporting System, a standardized national database within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The experience of Dan Jones, a fire chief in Chapel Hill, N.C., bears out the national statistics. "A lot of fires are the result of unattended cooking," Jones says. "We see more of these fires in low-income housing in multifamily units. Some of that is because you have single parents trying to deal with kids and cook at the same time. So the distractions set up the conditions that create a fire."
"One of the biggest problems we see is grilling on balconies, especially in wood frame buildings," says Gary Keith, NFPA vice president of building and life safety. He says that it's a problem regardless of whether the grill uses gas or charcoal. "It's amazing how many owners allow this."
The growing popularity of candles is another problem. "Candles are becoming more of a cause of fire than in the past," says Mark Harvey, a lieutenant paramedic with the Southfield, Mich., fire department. "Their popularity has boomed. A lot of people like scented candles. This year, we had an 84-year-old woman die [after she] lit a candle in a jar and put it on a coffee table. [The candle flame] heated up the glass sufficiently to crack it, caught the table on fire, and then spread to the couch."
Open flames aren't the only issue. The seemingly endless variety of electronic devices in the typical apartment has also increased the likelihood of electrical fires. "I've seen electrical fires caused by people using extension cords that weren't properly sized," says Steve Bushnell, product manager for commercial real estate at Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. "People will have a computer and about 48 other electrical things in the room. They're running power strips off power strips. They plug 10 different things into one outlet. Sometimes a breaker will heat up and will cause ignition."
Then there's the arson factor. Arson is behind 10 percent of apartment fires, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and leads to 33 percent of deaths and 14 percent of injuries.
In the instance of the arson at the Lane properties in Atlanta, no one has been arrested, although, according to the Journal-Constitution, federal officials have said that an anarchist who wanted to "free the oppressed minority population of Atlanta" may have been the arsonist. The suspect, Gregory Steven Clark, killed himself after FBI agents surrounded the Atlanta hotel where he was staying. Clark was wanted in a bank robbery.
With their likeliest causes staying consistent, the overall number of apartment fires rose by only 3 percent between 2000 and 2004, from 90,500 to 94,000. In 2004 alone, however, apartment fires caused $885 million in reported property damages and 510 civilian deaths, plus another 3,200 injuries.
Surprisingly, though, the incidence of fire and fire-related deaths in high-rise apartment buildings (which the NFPA defines as structures with more than six stories) is either the same as or less than in shorter buildings. Property loss in high-rise apartments also is lower than in the shorter buildings. High-rises, particularly newer ones, may fare better largely because of building codes that mandate fire-resistive construction and the use of more sophisticated fire prevention technology.
Of course, the apartment building itself is only one casualty of a fire. While the flames are being doused, apartment owners and managers must take care of their newly homeless residents, who have just watched their apartments and possessions destroyed or damaged by flames, smoke, and water.
The key to handling such situations? Planning and preparation. "You have to have a written disaster plan, and people haveto be familiar with it. Everyone has to understand their roles," says Todd Pope, president of Simpson Property Group in Denver, which manages 25,000 apartments. "You have to build into your culture that you have to be there and take care of residents." Even in the face of confusion and panic, he says, companies can take simple, inexpensive steps such as relocating residents into vacant apartments and providing a bit of food.
Such assistance makes a difference, regardless of the blaze's size. When a small fire broke out in the wee hours at a Simpson property in Denver several years ago, Pope's people knew exactly what to do. "Everyone on the staff was there within minutes," Pope recalls. The fire, which had started in an indoor pool's equipment room, didn't cause much damage–but it did create lots of smoke, preventing approximately 30 residents from returning to their apartments that night. "We immediately returned security deposits to the folks who were displaced," Pope says.
Fires that cause more damage will demand an equally prompt but more extensive response from apartment owners and managers. Fortunately, Lane has a plan for dealing with catastrophes. Its first priority, says Andrew Gardner, director of condominium operations, is establishing communications among property management and corporate staff to get information out. Second is setting up a command and response center for management. Third is making sure management helps residents with housing and other immediate needs.
Thus, when the fire broke out at the element, Donges called his top leadership as well as the key managers involved in Art Foundry's warranty and repair departments. Their top priority? Attending to displaced residents. "The warranty people knew all the residents," says Donges, whose employees set up an emergency "care center" for residents within a few hours of the fire and contacted Lane property management and leasing staff to provide food, water, and other necessities. Some residents, for example, had no clothes–their units had been destroyed, leaving them with only the pajamas they were wearing when they ran from the building. Within 72 hours of the fire, Lane staffers persuaded a handful of local stores to provide discounts to residents who needed to buy new clothes and also distributed American Express gift certificates for emergency clothing purchases.
Those residents whose units were only damaged, not destroyed, received personal attention as well. Lane Co. staff requested that firefighters escort residents back to their individual units so they could salvage key items. "They had medicines that they needed. Some of them had important papers," Donges says. "We let them pick up these essentials."
The company protected the belongings left behind and the safety of residents whose units had escaped the blaze by hiring a firm to secure the fire-scarred areas and construction crews to make that section of the building watertight, containing the water and smoke damage. Once the property was secured, Lane offered displaced residents their choice of several properties as temporary housing, forgoing normal rental requirements and lease terms. The company was told that all but eight renters had renters insurance. It was six months before residents could return to their fire-damaged Art Foundry units, but almost everyone was settled in their temporary housing within a few days of the fire, the CEO says.
By responding quickly and appropriately to the fire, Donges notes, the company turned tragedy into opportunity. "It was probably the defining moment for our company, the way we came together to solve the issues and help residents," says Donges. "I've never seen a company rally like that before."
And in the face of a fire, which affects people and properties in truly elemental ways, such top-level involvement is essential if a multifamily company wants to retain the trust and loyalty of its residents. "The public needs to see you as the leader," says communications consultant Terri Thornton, who worked with Lane on its public response to the Atlantic Station arson. "They need to see that the situation is being dealt with from the highest possible level."
Charles Wardell is a freelance writer in Vineyard Haven, Mass. Additional reporting by Diane Kittower.
Too Hot Not To Handle
Sometimes, it's what's inside that really matters.
Adding fuel to fires in apartment buildings are residents' furniture and the materials in them. "Today's synthetic fibers, especially polyester or polyurethane foams in chairs, are the next best thing to gasoline," says Mark Harvey, a lieutenant paramedic with the Southfield, Mich., fire department. "Once the fire burns through fabric, you get black carbon smoke that greatly increases the fire load."
As a result, today's fires often burn hotter. Combustible gases from the burning furniture rise and get trapped at the ceiling, eventually filling the volume of the room. Ultimately, the room gets hot enough that the gas explodes into flame with enough force to not only ignite everything in the room but to burst through doors and windows.
The phenomenon is called flashover, and Harvey says that because apartment fires are burning so hot, flashovers are happening faster than ever. "We usually have water on a fire within six to 10 minutes [after getting the call]," he says. "But even with that quick a response, rarely do I see drywall left on walls in the room of origin. The reason these fires burn so hot is because of the furniture."
Protect your company and your residents by requiring renters insurance.
Talking with suddenly homeless residents after a fire at your property is emotional enough, but some conversations can be tougher than others if the resident's property wasn't insured. "It's difficult to tell someone that everything they own is gone, but that we're not responsible for it," says Todd Pope, president of Simpson Property Group in Denver.
Yet it represents a very common occurrence: On average, fewer than 10 percent of renters have insurance, according to Toni Bader, CEO of the Bader Co. in Indianapolis, an insurance firm that provides renters coverage. "The standard lease language says you're responsible for getting insurance, but most people don't bother," she says.
That's changing, though. Bader says that a growing number of apartment firms require their residents to carry renters insurance. (A renter's policy will cover the insured's belongings as well as provide a landlord with some liability protection.) Pope says Simpson is also considering it.
Of course, firms that require residents to carry such coverage will also need to confirm that a resident does indeed have renters insurance. Bader Co. has a tracking system that helps apartment firms verify just that when the lease comes up for renewal.
One firm, Renters Legal Liability of Salt Lake City, goes straight to landlords with its appeal: Transfer risk back to your residents. The company offers a policy that is billed to the landlord, rather than resident; the landlord can simply add the additional fee to the rent. (Renters must give their permission if an apartment owner wants to add the coverage–and the cost–before the lease is up for renewal.)
If there's a fire, the policy provides up to $100,000 worth of coverage after a $1,000 deductible, and the money is paid to the apartment company, according to Jim Dickson, chairman of Renters Legal Liability. The money goes first to repair the apartments of residents who were not responsible for the fire but were affected by it. The next priority is the personal property of those non-negligent residents. If there's still coverage left, the policy will pay up to $5,000 of the negligent residents' property. It will also pay the landlord up to $5,000 in loss of rent at up to $50 per day.
In The News
Fire strikes an apartment building with no warning. The results run the gamut from the tragedy of death to nothing more than smoke or water damage. Owners and managers need to be prepared to deal with the consequences, whatever they are. Here are some examples of 2006 fires, culled from local media reports.
- Shortly after 4 a.m. on April 12, fire damaged eight units of an apartment complex in Greensboro, N.C. There were no injuries, but the roof was described as "gutted." According to the assistant fire chief, the fire started accidentally inside a closet-type room containing a hot water heater and an air-handling unit. Because the building had been constructed in the 1950s, it did not have fire walls separating the attics, which are now required by municipal code.
- A suburban St. Louis girl died April 13 from injuries suffered in an apartment fire the day before. The initial official investigation pointed to a cooking accident as the cause of the fire. Injured were the girl's mother, father, and two younger brothers. The fire displaced eight families that included 25 people.
- A fire that broke out around 10 p.m. at the Cambridge Square Apartments in Monroeville, Pa., caused about $1 million in damage. Ten people were reported injured, none seriously. The blaze began behind a sofa in the living room of a first-floor apartment and was not described as suspicious. Twenty-three units were damaged, and more than 40 people were left homeless.
- An 86-year-old woman was the only fatality in an April 21 fire at a Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment building for the elderly and disabled. She had accidentally set a recliner on fire with a cigarette, and the living room of her sixth-floor apartment burned. Fire officials said the concrete floors of the building contained the fire to the victim's unit.
- Three people who jumped from a third-story window were among five injured in an apartment complex fire April 22 in the Van Nuys section of Los Angeles. The three who jumped were taken to a hospital, where their injuries were described as minor to moderate. Six other residents were given temporary shelter by the Red Cross. The cause of the fire was under investigation.