Fire safety for condo owners

It is 3 o’clock in the morning, the middle of February and you are woken up out of a sound sleep by the piercing sound of your fire alarm. Would you know what to do?  Responsibility for fire safety lies with you. Now is the time to learn the facts and the steps you must take should a fire occur. 

High buildings are designed to be fire-safe. But, because they may contain many people, and because of the building's tremendous size, emergency response is challenging with significant potential for major incidents. Very often when giving a presentation to concerned owners, I am asked how high our ladders go. If you focus on three key elements when developing your personal fire safety plan, you won’t need to worry about the height of our ladders. Prevention, Detection and Escape.

Prevention is your best defense against fire. Take these simple fire safety precautions in your own unit to prevent a fire from occurring:

Be careful with Smoking Materials.  Use large ashtrays for smokers; never smoke in bed and make sure matches and lighters are out of the reach of children. Never throw a cigarette butt off of the balcony!

Cook carefully.  Never leave food cooking unattended.  If you must leave, set a timer.

Use Candles with care.  Never leave a burning candle unattended and make sure to use a safe candleholder.

Check regularly for electrical hazards, such as worn electrical cords, overloaded extensions cords and outlets and broken appliances.

Don’t store flammable liquids in your home, car or anywhere else in the building.

Don’t use balconies, porches, fire escapes, or furnace rooms for storage.

It is a requirement of the Ontario Fire Code, that smoke alarms are installed and maintained.  While the Condominium Corporation provided you with a smoke alarm, it is your responsibility to make sure it is working. Very often the corporation will have a company come in once a year to clean and test your smoke alarm.  Dust can clog a smoke alarm.  The fire service recommends using a soft brush and gently vacuuming the alarm.  If your alarm is electrically connected shut off the power before you vacuum and then test your unit when finished.  It is also important that you are able to hear your alarm throughout your home.   You should consider installing a smoke alarm inside your sleeping areas, especially if you sleep with your bedroom door closed.

Your building has been designed to be more fire-safe than an average single-family house. Floors and ceilings are constructed with fire-resistant materials and are separated into fire compartments. The compartments act as barriers to resist fire from spreading.  You also might have noticed a fire alarm system designed to alert occupants when activated. Types of fire alarm devices include smoke detectors, thermal detectors and sprinkler flow switches.

Since each building is unique, you should learn the approved "Fire Safety Plan" specifically designed for your building.  Explore your building.  Know every possible exit, including exits from the laundry, storage and recreation rooms.  Find out about your building’s fire alarm and what actions you should take when it sounds.

What actions must I take in a fire?
During a fire emergency, never attempt to leave a building by an elevator. Heat can activate elevator call buttons, sending the elevator to the fire floor, where dense smoke may interfere with the elevator's light-sensitive eye and prevent the door from closing. Also, you may become trapped in the elevator if water from firefighting operations creates a power failure. In addition, fire fighters require designated elevators to carry them and their equipment to the floor below the fire.

In reacting to a fire in a high building, you must decide on two options:
•  Do I leave the building to safety? or
•  Is it safer to stay where I am?

What steps do I take when fire is in my apartment?

Alert everyone in your apartment.

Leave immediately. Close, but don't lock, all doors behind you.

Sound the fire alarm by activating a red manual pull station on the fire floor.

Call 9-1-1. Never assume that someone else has already done so. Make sure you give your name, the correct address and location of the fire.

Use the exit stairwells. Don't use elevators. Don't return until firefighters declared the apartment safe.

What steps do I take when I hear a fire alarm?
If you choose to leave the building:

Leave as soon as possible.

Before opening any door, feel the door handle and the door itself, starting from the bottom, moving to the top. If the door is not hot, open it slightly.

If you see or smell smoke, or feel or hear air pressure or a hot draft, close the door quickly.

If the corridor is free of fire or smoke, take your keys, close the door behind you, and leave the building by the nearest exit stairwell, again closing all doors after you.

If you encounter smoke in a stairwell, consider taking an alternate stairwell. There is no reason to every breathe smoke in a highrise building. If the alternate is also contaminated with smoke, return to your suite.

When you are safely outside call 9-1-1. Never assume that someone else has already done so. Make sure you give your name, the correct address and location of the fire.

If you cannot leave your apartment or have returned to it because of fire or heavy smoke:

Close, but don't lock any doors for possible entry by firefighters.

Seal all cracks where smoke can enter by using wet towels or sheets. Seal mail slots, transoms and ventilation outlets as necessary (a roll of wide duct tape is handy).

Move to the balcony or to the most protected room and partially open a window for air. Close the window if smoke enters.

Keep low to the floor. Heat and toxic gases rise.

Signal firefighters by waving a white sheet or towel.

Wait to be rescued. Remain calm. Don't panic or jump.

Listen for instructions or information from authorized personnel over the building's internal speaker system.

In taking the time to make a few simple and planned considerations for your safety, and the safety of your family, you have ensured that should a fire occur you know the steps to take. Like all other knowledge, once obtained it must be refreshed and practised.  People and circumstances change and the only way to tell if your plan will still work for you is to try it.  If it takes you longer than 1 minute to get out, consider revising your plan, installing more smoke alarms and/or practising more often.

The key to your safe future is exactly that…You. 

Samantha Hoffmann
Public Fire and Life Safety Officer
Barrie Fire and Emergency Service
(705) 728-3199
Samantha Hoffmann has been in the fire safety field for over 25 years.  She started her fire career at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto as Fire Marshal and Emergency Planning Co-ordinator.

In 1996 she joined North York fire department in the rank of firefighter and worked in the Fire Prevention, Public Education and Media sections. North York Fire amalgamated and became Toronto Fire Service where Samantha worked in an Acting Captain capacity until August of 2011 when she left to join Barrie Fire as their Public Fire and Life Safety Officer.

Samantha Hoffmann is not one to waste time. She is a mother of four, a committed employee and an enthusiastic volunteer.
Samantha Hoffmann is not one to waste time. She is a mother of four, a committed employee and an enthusiastic volunteer. She spends her time fighting fires before they start through education and public speaking as a Public Fire and Life Safety Officer, all while maintaining numerous positions on committees and organizations that she feels passionate about.

 She has published articles and presented at conferences on fire safety, critical incident stress and relationships. 

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