Fires devastate thousands of properties nationally each year. Herman & Kittle lost 18 units for eight months after a porch fire took out a building. Photo courtesy of Herman & Kittle Properties.

Wiring, lightning and grills have one thing in common to Souad Belkheir: they all pose a threat.

Belkheir, a risk manager at Stonemark Management, knows all too well the many ways a fire can start in apartments.

When lightning struck the outside of a building, it started an unforeseen blaze inside one unit that caused thousands of dollars in damage. Another fire took out seven units due to furnace wiring, Belkheir says.

Belkheir is certainly not alone in her desire to tamp down these threats. Nationally, 28 percent of all residential fires occurred in multifamily buildings, the U.S. Fire Administration noted in a report issued in in Sept. 2013.

Kitchen Heat
Kitchen fires are the most common threats to Alex Jackiw and her team at Indianapolis-based Milhaus Management. Jackiw, president, says installing chemical powder canisters (which are triggered by a fire) over a stove can prevent flames from spreading and help keep damages from blazing through an owner’s checkbook.

She noted how a property owner didn’t want to spend the money to install the kitchen devices at a 96-unit Indianapolis property.

“We had three fires on this property in a 90-day period of time,” she says. “The fires were all in excess of $50,000 in damage and could have been minimized for less than $40 per unit.”

The fire administration report estimates through 2009 to 2011 that more than 101,900 fires were reported annually, causing about $1.2 billion worth of damage each year.

Many properties rely on preventative maintenance to smother risk. And while routine annual inspections of fire safety equipment are essential, no manager can control what a resident will or will not do.

Jackiw says grills are a huge hazard when it comes to resident behavior. Her most recent fire nightmare was started by a charcoal grill that was allegedly stored in an external storage unit and burned through 16 units.

“There were flammable materials around it and by the time (the resident) caught on to what was happening, it had gone through the roof and it was in a second floor unit,” she says.

Disaster Prep Plan
Chimneys are another structural hazard that keeps Belkheir on her toes. To keep residents aware of the dangers, the staff goes over the risks with residents during the leasing process.

“There is a fire addendum in case the unit would have a fireplace and it discloses safety tips that a resident would have to adhere to in order to prevent fire,” Belkheir says.

But despite a fire's cause, taking care of the staff and residents must be part of every community’s fire safety plan.

“During a fire, things are so hectic and dramatic,” she says. “You get the fire marshals doing inspections and insurance is doing inspections, so we place residents in hotels. After that, we offer them to transfer to another unit onsite or if we don’t have a similar unit of the same size available, they may be able to transfer to sister property.”

Scott McLaughlin, a regional manager at Indianapolis-based Herman & Kittle Properties, says he had to relocate several families from a property after a porch fire ravished an entire building. The fire, which happened in March 2011, caused about $200,000 in damages and impacted 18 units, six of which were total losses, McLaughlin says.

The damaged units were offline for about eight months and posed a challenge for the staff to find housing for the residents. But having a staff that is well-trained and ready to spring into action helps, McLaughlin says.

“My site staff impressed me because they had already developed the relationships with local businesses, other properties and the Red Cross,” he says.

Those outside relationships proved their worth as many surrounding properties and the Red Cross stepped in to help the families find alternative housing. The onsite staff was able to move several families into vacant units.

“We accommodated as many as we could that way,” McLaughlin says. “Some folks found family members and relatives.”

And once the units were restored and back online, each of the families who had been relocated were offered to move back into their units before they were put back on the leasing roll.

“A few did come back,” he says. “But we made sure we stayed in touch with them and keep them updated as far as status all along the way.”

Lindsay Machak is an Associate Editor for Multifamily Executive. Connect with her on Twitter @LMachak.