Last night, I was suddenly awakened in the middle of the night by a wailing ambulance speeding passed my house. And then a firetruck. And then police. It’s heartbreaking knowing that someone out there is having the worst night of their life. We hear the phrases all the time, “when seconds matter, the police are minutes away” and, “you are your own first responder.” It’s a harsh reminder that we must be prepared to handle ourselves and our families in the event of an emergency.
If you’re reading this, chances are that you’re already more prepared than most. We carry self defense tools and train with them so that we can be prepared to stop a threat if we need to—threats that may not give us opportunity to call 911 and receive outside assistance before it’s too late—but there is SO much more to being prepared for an emergency than just having a self defense tool and knowing how to use it.
Our homes play a big role in keeping us safe. Most of us think of it in terms of the shelter our homes provide, doors and windows that lock to discourage intruders, and so on. For this post, I’d like to focus on something that is perhaps a bit unconventional in the preparedness conversation: your home’s role when it comes to fire, an often overlooked topic that can be essential to your survival.
What’s code got to do with it?
Building codes are top of mind for me, as I’m currently taking a course on the subject. I won’t bore you with all the details, but there are some very important things to consider when it comes to the structure that you inhabit.
Building codes can get a bad wrap. Many homeowners and landlords see them as arbitrary hoops they have to jump though, inconvenient or expensive measures, and so on. Many don’t realize that the purpose of building codes are to ensure the health and safety of the inhabitants. Building codes are extensive and range from preventing trips and falls, ensuring good air quality, preventing and slowing the spread of a fire, and enabling you to get out of the house before the structure is compromised in a disaster, just to name a few.
The unfortunate thing about building codes is that they are often reactive, meaning that codes are not implemented until something terrible happens and the powers that be realize there should probably be a building code to prevent that terrible thing so that people don’t continue to die or sustain serious injury from it. With building codes in place, this establishes minimum standards that we must implement to ensure our homes are safe and will not work against us in the case of an emergency.
It’s not uncommon to see DIY home renovations that don’t meet code, old homes that haven’t been updated in a long time or haven’t been updated properly, or just lazy, unlicensed contractors that don’t care about your safety. Like many other situations in life, it’s on us to do our due diligence and make sure we aren’t putting ourselves or our families at risk. It is especially important if you are renting, as the property is not subject to a property inspection of any kind before you take up residence like it would be if you are buying.
Without boring you to death, I want to take a few minutes to consider about how code compliance (or lack thereof) can impact your home’s ability to prevent and slow the spread of fire, and enable you to get out. There is a lot to consider here, so let’s narrow it down to four topics: electrical, fireblocking, egress, and smoke alarms.
Electrical failures and malfunctions result in an average of 44,880 home fires a year, according to this National Fire Protection Association report. Electrical issues can be difficult to diagnose since most wiring is out of sight, but there are a few signs you can look out for:
- Frequently tripping breakers
- Scorching or discoloration around outlets and switches
- Dimming or flickering lights
- Burning smell
- Messy or frayed wiring
You will want to pay extra close attention if you home is over 40 years old or has aluminum wiring (common in homes built between 1965-1973). If you aren’t sure if the electrical wiring in your house is up to code or if you notice any of those signs above, call an electrician! If you’re renting, make sure to document any problems and notify your landlord/property manager immediately.
This one is difficult to see or diagnose, since these things are inside the walls, ceilings, etc. but it is so important. In short, fireblocking cuts off vertical and horizontal concealed spaces in wood construction to create a fire barrier between stories, and between the top floor and the roof space. This compartmentalizes those concealed spaces to prevent smoke and fire from quickly moving through them. Adequate fireblocking will buy you time so that you can get out of the house if there is a fire. Building codes determine how much fireblocking is required, and where it must be placed.
Although fireblocking is code, missing or inadequate fireblocking is a common problem and is one of the top code violations, according to the International Code Council and National Association of Home Builders. You can read more on their findings here.
Given that fireblocking is completely concealed behind the drywall in your home, there aren’t really any signs to look out for that may indicate missing or inadequate fireblocking, until your house has gone up in flames (I wouldn’t recommend setting your home on fire to check). The best thing you can do is to make sure fireblocking is done properly in the first place. If you’re DIYing, make sure you are familiar with building codes and how to implement proper fireblocking. If you have hired a contractor to build or remodel, make sure you hire a reputable, licensed contractor. Building inspections before the walls are closed will identify any deficiencies in this area (among many others).
Building codes establish a lot of standards about egress, including the number of points of egress in a bedroom, the size and placement of egress windows, and so much more.
First of all, what the heck does egress mean? In this context, egress is an emergency exit—a way to get you the heck out of a building in case of an emergency. Egress is also often used as an entry point for firefighters. For example, code establishes a minimum size for egress openings—this not only enables you to easily get out if you need to, but also enables a firefighter in full gear to get in (think bedroom window).
Egress, or lack thereof, is easy to see, and therefore makes it easy for you to ensure it’s up to code. We won’t go into all egress codes in this post, but here are a few that I find particularly important:
- Bedrooms must have two points of egress. This is typically the main door to get into the room from the interior of the house, as well as a window or door to the exterior.
- Egress openings in bedrooms must be no more than 44 inches off the floor – this will allow you to easily crawl out of the window in the event of an emergency.
- Egress openings in bedrooms must have an opening area of at least 20 inches wide and 24 inches high. Again, this is to enable you to easily get out, as well as to enable a firefighter to easily get in.
- Basements must have two points of egress. If there are separate bedrooms rooms in the basement, they must also have two points of egress.
- Egress openings must be operable! If a window does not open, it does not count as an egress opening.
If you are looking to buy or rent a home of any kind, make sure it at least meets those egress requirements above! Once you move in, here are a few things to take into consideration:
- If a room in your house does not have two points of egress, do not use it as a bedroom, nursery, guest room, or any kind of sleeping room. I cannot stress this enough!
- Make sure egress openings are always accessible. Do not block them with furniture or other items, and make sure there is a clear path to the opening.
- If you put additional security measures/devices on doors and windows, make sure all members of your household are trained on how to operate them and can quickly and easily remove them in the event of an emergency. Make sure that any security measures would not prevent emergency responders from making a rescue.
I’m not going to go into detail on this one here, since there is so much information out there on this topic, but I do want to quote a few statistics from the US Fire Administration:
- Three out of five home fire deaths result from fires in properties without working smoke alarms.
- More than one-third (38 percent) of home fire deaths result from fires in which no smoke alarms are present.
- The risk of dying in a home fire is cut in half in homes with working smoke alarms.
Yikes. Read those bullet points again.
Make sure your home meets current code for smoke alarms, and has functioning smoke alarms in the appropriate locations. Test them once a month and replace batteries every 6 months.
What should I do if I’m renting?
I touched on this a bit already, but I do want to call it out again: if you are a renter, it is extra important for you to do your due diligence to ensure your home is safe. It is not uncommon for landlords or property managers to overlook code violations and continue to rent out homes that are wildly out of date, and even horribly unsafe.
If you feel that something is off about a property or if you notice anything that might compromise your safety, don’t rent the property in the first place. Take your time when touring a property. Look closely at every room, light switch, outlet, and fixture. Open, close, lock, and unlock every door and window. Flush every toilet and turn on every faucet. Test the smoke alarms. Use all of your senses! You may be surprised at not only what you see, but what you feel, hear, and smell. Remind me to tell you about the time I moved into a house with a gas leak.
If you are already living in a home and you discover code violations or unsafe conditions, document everything and notify your landlord or property manager immediately. Also, make sure to understand the tenant rights in your area.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you! I hoped you learned something from this post that will help you in your overall preparedness. If you want to learn more, here are some resources that provide useful information: