NEXUS PROPERTY MANAGEMENT 101: WHAT ARE MY RESPONSIBILITIES WHEN IT COMES TO FIRE SAFETY AT MY RENTAL PROPERTY?
There are lots of different approaches you can take to managing property but being the landlord who neglects fire safety just can’t be one of them. Local fire departments will let you know what is necessary for the safety of your tenants and property and despite the potential costs and headaches, it is essential that you cooperate and meet those requirements. More often than not, the issues are relatively simple and not that expensive. Most importantly, you’re taking steps to protect people, to prevent a tragedy, and to mitigate your liability. From both the human perspective as well as the business perspective, it is essential that you maintain a safe property and follow all requirements spelled out by your local fire department.
TOP 10 FIRE SAFETY VIOLATIONS:
With over 1200 units under management across dozens of municipalities, Nexus Property Management® has seen our fair share of fire safety issues. Recently, a fire in a rental property in Pawtucket, Rhode Island made headlines as young tenants were photographed climbing over an air conditioning unit to access a fire escape. A 71-year old and 12-year old were hospitalized but it’s very likely that wouldn’t have been necessary had the landlord been more attentive to his or her property. Fire safety has been a major issue in Rhode Island and Southern New England since the tragic Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, RI back in 2003.
Regardless of where you manage property, here are 10 common issues you want to make sure you’ve got on your radar. We’ve organized them into a couple groups: Systems and Infrastructure; Building Access; and Common Areas
SYSTEMS AND INFRASTRUCTURE
1. Fire Alarm System/Panel
Those red boxes on the wall in the hallway are not just for show. Those are local alarms that connect all of the detectors in your property. If one of them is triggered, indicating there is a problem somewhere in the building, all tenants will be notified so they can evacuate. These systems need to be tested regularly. The most common requirements for rental properties are every 6 months, but the larger the property, the more frequently it may need to be inspected by a master electrician.
2. Carbon Monoxide Alarms
Carbon monoxide detectors are mandatory in basements and near laundry and with combo alarms (CO and smoke) so affordable, it makes sense to have these throughout all units. The reward far exceeds the cost. Carbon monoxide is colorless and odorless and there’s no defense other than detecting it with an alarm.
3. Fire Extinguishers
Are your fire extinguishers up to date? You’ll need to hire a vendor to inspect and tag each one to show they’re up to date and in working order. They’ll also ensure you have the correct type and size for each given location. You’ll also need to make sure you have enough for the size and layout of your property.
4. Dedicated House Meter For Fire Alarm Components
Typically, rental properties have one more electric meter than the number of rental properties. That extra meter is for common area electricity and it is paid for by the landlord, rather than the tenants. Without that extra meter, you may find yourself in trouble because the fire alarm system is then tied in with one of the tenants. Should there be a vacancy, that tenant will no longer be paying that bill, and your property could be unprotected. Diligent fire departments won’t stand for this. Unfortunately, adding a meter can typically range between $3,000 and $5,000…but it’s a must.
5. Knox Box
Your property should have a Knox Box to make it as easy as possible for emergency response teams to enter your property. Knox Boxes are those little, (typically) black boxes with a red stripe, bolted to the house near the main entryway. That box will house keys to access the building and each of the units and any other necessary keys [LEARN MORE: Best Practice: Engraving Your Keys]. Quite simply, having a Knox Box will allow firefighters to enter quickly and efficiently…not to mention, it’ll save you from having to replace your doors should force be necessary.
6. Access To Fire Escapes; Fire Escapes In Working Order
It is essential, as illustrated in the story noted above, that windows near fire escapes be in working order and without obstructions. This includes things like air conditioners, large plants, or fish tanks (yup, we’ve seen it). It’s a little tricky for tenants on top floors because their units are often smaller and have a limited number of windows, but safety needs to come first. It is also your responsibility to make sure there are no trees or vines around or obstructing emergency personnel access to fire escapes. More often than not, they’re used for getting out, but should a firefighter need to go in via the fire escape, they’ve got no time to spend landscaping. Picture the loads of equipment they’re typically carrying on their backs if you still have any hesitancy.
Additionally, you need to make sure your fire escapes are free of rust. Yes, they’re typically iron and will rust and flake over the years. Scrape it or power wash it and add a new coat of black paint to improve safety and appearance. It’ll last decades.
7. Self-Closing Doors (@ Knox Box Location)
Self-closing exterior doors are a good idea for multiple aesthetic and hygienic reasons. When it comes to fire safety, a self-closing door is often required at the site of your Knox Box (your main entrance). The reason is simple, and will be the theme in the common area issues below: we want to limit the amount of oxygen coming into the building as best we can. Firefighters are entering and accessing the situation and don’t have the luxury to spend time closing doors behind them. Oxygen will feed the fire and help it spread more quickly. Self-closing doors are an easy and affordable defense.
8. Peeling Paint, Holes in Walls, Damaged Wainscotting
Like oxygen, paint and flaking materials from walls are accelerants for fire. Peeling paint might not seem like a big deal, but when there’s enough and it's in narrow hallways or stairs that are the only avenues for airflow, it can be deadly. Just like twigs and small branches on the forest floor are typically harmless, add fire to the mix and that small kindling makes all the difference in having a chance to control the flames. The same holds true for multi-family homes. Decrease the amount of kindling by tending to your walls and making sure they’re solid. Holes in walls will obviously help fire travel and provide more air to accelerate the flames. Fire feeds on weak points and shortcuts…don’t let your negligence help flames jump to another floor or part of your property.
Similarly, wainscotting plays the same role as peeling paint. Damaged wainscotting is even easier to fit into the kindling analogy. Taking care of your common areas and making sure they’re inviting and attractive have multiple advantages, including helping protect your property and your tenants from fire.
9. Laundry Areas
Laundry areas need to be clean and lint free and most importantly, your dryer exhaust duct needs to be protected by a rigid metal exhaust pipe. Beware of cheaper, flimsy substitutes that can easily tear.
10. Basement Storage
Very often, the area under the basement stairs is used for storage. This seems like efficient use of space, but when thinking in terms of fire safety, it is essential to limit the density of combustible items. We’ve typically seen guidance that limits storage to 24 sq. ft. but it may vary. The general guidelines are clear though: don’t pile crap up that will easily burn quickly. In Nexus managed properties, we encourage clients and tenants to dispose of “junk” items, which are typically what ends up in basement storage, as soon as we notice it.
YOUR NEXT STEPS
If you haven’t heard from your fire department already, it’s worth reaching out to them. These aren’t issues you want to duck to save a couple bucks. If someone dies on your property and you have to deal with a wrongful death suit, your short term savings will not exist…neither will your long term savings. Not to mention, the non-monetary scars a tragedy will leave. The best practice is to build strong relationships with your fire department. Your interests are aligned and although they are likely asking you to spend some money, they’re ultimately protecting you, your tenants, and your property.
If they do hit you with a hefty price tag, do your best to establish good faith and show that you’ll attack what you can when you can. As long as you’re moving in the right direction, and communicating proactively, they’ll be supportive!.
Want to learn more, or have additional questions about anything pertaining to rental property and/or real estate investment? We encourage you to reach out to our team.
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Mick Lefort is the Vice President of Operations for Nexus Property Management®. A National Property Management Franchise that manages all types of rental property from single family homes or condos to large apartment buildings and complexes.
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