By Paul Votto, National Director of Housing Programs
The fire that engulfed a 24-story public housing community in London on June 14, 2017, killing 80 people at last count, should be a reminder to all in the housing management business of the importance of making life safety a top priority. Early news reports concerning the fire at Grenfell Tower point to shoddy – perhaps even criminal – execution in the construction, renovation, and maintenance of the building.
Based on the initial reporting, Roger Lewis, a renowned architect and planner, Professor Emeritus of the University of Maryland’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, and a Fellow in the Academy of Housing and Cities, believes four factors may have contributed to the fire: 1) the combustibility of the exterior cladding on the building that allowed the fire to quickly spread vertically; 2) the lack of a functioning fire sprinkler system; 3) the lack of a functioning fire detection and alarm system; and 4) the lack of a second, fire-rated stairway to provide an alternative means of exiting from the building.
Time will tell who shoulders the most blame for this tragedy, but if Professor Lewis’s analysis is correct, it sure looks like there will be plenty of blame to go around.
As property managers, we are often forced to “play the cards that are dealt to us." Usually we have little, if any, role in the design and construction of the buildings we manage. But once properties are in our hands, they become our obligation, plain and simple. Sure, there are others who share the responsibility for life safety matters, from architects and contractors to owners, building inspectors, fire officials, and the residents themselves, but if a serious fire occurs, that will be of little solace to those who manage the building and, certainly, to the victims and their families.
The tragedy at Grenfell Tower is a reminder that we need to be ever vigilant when it comes to fire safety. This involves a variety of responsibilities, including understanding the measures – both physical and operational – that are built into our buildings to protect the lives of our residents, keeping those measures up to date and functional, proactively reviewing and strengthening those measures, and having the most effective evacuation and response plan possible.
Here are just a few of the questions property managers need to ask:
- Is my property in compliance with all applicable building and fire codes?
- Are our life safety systems (e.g. detectors, alarms, sprinklers, extinguishers, etc.) regularly inspected and in complete working order?
- Is all required signage properly posted?
- Do we have a written evacuation plan that is regularly communicated to residents and staff?
- Are we conducting periodic inspections of the units and common areas to identify and address potential life safety issues?
- Do we have a response plan that is fully understood by all staff in the case of a fire (or other emergency)?
- Do we reach out proactively to our local emergency response officials for advice on additional measures we can take to protect our residents, staff, visitors and property?
Having managed properties myself, I know how easy it is to take fire safety for granted. Those pesky fire drills and seemingly ever-increasing inspection and preventive maintenance costs can be viewed as “necessary evils.” But evils they are not. What is evil is the complacency and incompetence that leads to 80 lives lost.