Fire in San Marcos apartments offers lessons for homeowners

Emergency personnel continue search and recovery efforts at the Iconic Village apartments, where a fire broke out early Friday, in San Marcos, Texas, on July 20, 2018.
LYNDA M. GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

In researching an editorial about the fire that tore through two apartment complexes in San Marcos recently, I spoke to safety experts who scared me straight about fire safety – and not just in multifamily residences and college dorms, but in my own home.

With busy lifestyles, fire safety typically isn’t high on our radars. It should be. Protecting one’s home requires more than installing a few fire alarms. Along with alarms, homeowners should have other devices on hand, such as fire extinguishers and fire escape ladders. Also, homeowners should have an exit plan.

“People underestimate how fast and how hot fires grow,” said Jeffrey Shapiro, a fire engineering consultant who lives in Austin.”

“Then you see something like this.”

Shapiro was referring to the fire that broke out at the Iconic Village and Village Pads apartments in San Marcos on July 20.

READ EDITORIAL: San Marcos fire raises questions about safety of renters

Five people were killed in the blaze that spread through three buildings in the complex. To escape the fire, some residents said they jumped out apartment windows. Survivors said they didn’t hear fire alarms go off. Instead they said they got notice their building was burning from others who knocked on their doors at 4:30 a.m.

San Marcos authorities are investigating the cause of the fire and whether smoke alarms in apartments malfunctioned.

Automatic sprinkler systems are the most effective protection against fires in apartments because they limit the spread of fire until firefighters arrive. Sprinkler systems save lives, studies show. But those apartments were built in 1970 before sprinkler systems were required for multifamily residences. State law requires that all multifamily residences have fire alarms. Tenants are responsible for replacing the batteries.

Certainly, I have installed fire alarms in my home that detect smoke, the ones that use nine-volt batteries. What I didn’t know was that those fire alarms should be put in every bedroom – if not every room – along with installing one in the kitchen. And there are better models on the market that don’t require regular replacement of batteries.

“Fire alarms activate only where smoke is,” Shapiro said, adding that if the alarm is in the kitchen and a person is asleep in the bedroom when a fire erupts, then he or she “might not get an early warning.”

Aside from placing them in each room of the house, homeowners should consider upgrading to tamper-resistant fire alarms powered by lithium batteries that last for 10 years. The sealed versions can’t be easily opened without breaking the units, said Andy Teas, vice president for public affairs for the Houston apartment Association. At less than $30 each, they are affordable.

Another option are wireless smoke alarms that create an interconnected system so that when one alarm is triggered, all alarms in the home sound off.

RELATED: Ex-residents at San Marcos apartments recall faulty smoke detectors

Fire extinguishers especially crafted for home use also are a good investment, Teas said, because they can suppress a fire if used timely until firefighters arrive. Placing extinguishers in a kitchen and a bedroom makes sense because kitchens are where grease fires break out. But be careful not to place too close to an over or stove. An extinguisher used effectively can put out a small fire or buy time to escape. They range in price from about $20 to $80.

Shapiro mentioned something I had not heard of, a fire escape ladder, for people who live in two-story homes. They are portable, roll-up ladders that mount to walls or windows and can be a way out when doorways are blocked by fire. They should be kept in bedrooms near windows, he said. I found them online, ranging from $25 to $160.

Think ahead so you don’t get trapped in your home if a fire breaks out, Shapiro and Teas said. That means knowing different ways to exit a home. It might mean going out a window if there is no way to make it to the first floor, or out a back door, or even off a roof.

“We’ve gotten used to not having fires, so we are not thinking about fire safety in our homes,” said David Mintz, vice president of government affairs for the Texas Apartment Association. “We’ve got to be thinking about these things.”

He is right. Fire safety in our homes must be a priority.