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There are general fire safety precautions you should follow regardless of where you work or live. Housing options abound in Chapel Hill, and the majority of University students live off-campus. Unfortunately, statistics show the risk of fire-related injury is significantly higher in off-campus residential facilities; almost 80 percent of fire-related deaths in student housing occur in off-campus facilities, according to the Center for Campus Fire Safety. The leading factors in these fatalities often include lack of automatic fire sprinklers, missing or disabled smoke alarms, careless disposal of smoking materials and alcohol consumption.

Ideally, you should address the following fire safety concerns when choosing an off-campus residence, and use them as guidelines for a safer life off-campus. Although some of the suggested precautions may not be available in single family homes and duplexes, and may not even be required by certain building codes, you should consider all of these issues when answering the question, “How safe is your off-campus home?”

When was the last Fire Marshal inspection?

The facility should be inspected by the local fire marshal on a periodic basis, and the property manager should receive a copy of the inspection report. This report should list any code violations noted and indicate whether the violations have been corrected. Ask the property’s management for a copy of the most recent fire inspection report, and if they cannot provide a copy, or if the report is more than a year old, ask them to request a new inspection of the facility. Note: The local fire department does not conduct inspections of single-family dwellings or duplexes. However, they will often conduct a safety survey of the home if requested by the owner.

Are safety systems tested and maintained?

The fire sprinkler, fire alarm, and emergency power systems should be inspected and tested every year by a licensed contractor who will provide the property manager with a copy of the inspection report. Ask the property manager for a copy of the most recent inspection reports, and ask if deficiencies noted on the reports have been corrected.

There are thousands of home fires in the U.S. every year, which result in roughly 3,000 deaths annually. Almost half of these deaths resulted from fires that were reported between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m., the time period in which most people sleep. For this reason, providing smoke alarms in bedrooms may be the single most important step toward preventing fire-related casualties in residential buildings.

Does the facility have a fire alarm system?

A fire alarm system improves safety by providing early detection and warning should a fire occur. The system should include:

  • Manual pull-boxes, which are located on each floor adjacent to exit stairs, and installed by exits located on the ground floor
  • Smoke detectors installed on the ceilings of interior hallways, which are designed to sound the building alarm when the detector activates
  • Audible and visual warning devices, which should at least be audible in all portions of the unit, including bathrooms and other remote areas

Note: Apartment complexes designed so that each unit exits directly to the exterior are normally not provided with fire alarm systems.

Tampering with any part of a building’s fire alarm or sprinkler system is against the law. In addition to putting yourself and others at risk, criminal charges may be brought by the local jurisdiction. In February 2019, five UNC-Chapel Hill students were charged for tampering with smoke detectors in a fraternity house.

Are there smoke alarms in bedrooms and dwelling units?

There should be at least one smoke alarm in each bedroom, and at least one on every level of the home. Ideally, the smoke alarm system should comply with the fire safety awareness guidelines for smoke alarms.

Assure that the smoke alarms in the residence have properly charged batteries and back-up power sources, and ask the property manager how often smoke alarms are tested and how often the batteries are replaced. If the smoke alarm system is inadequate, insist the property manager install a proper system, or ask if you can have a system installed yourself.

Smoke Alarm Basics

  • Install at least one smoke alarm in every bedroom
  • Install additional smoke alarms in hallways and common areas in the vicinity of bedrooms
  • Install at least one smoke alarm on every level of your home
  • Make sure the smoke alarms within your home are interconnected so the activation of one alarm will activate all alarms within the home
  • Try to use smoke alarms powered by the building electrical system, which have a battery for backup power…. However, if this type of smoke alarm is not available, battery-powered units are certainly better than not having smoke alarms

Smoke Alarm Maintenance

  • Test smoke alarms at least once a month, by pressing the button on the alarm that allows you to test the unit
  • Replace smoke alarm batteries every year

Is the facility protected by a fire sprinkler system?

A properly installed and maintained automatic fire sprinkler system will control or extinguish a fire occurring within the facility. Residential fire sprinkler systems have value in all facilities, but are especially important in high-rise residential buildings and residential buildings that utilize interior hallways and stairs for exit purposes.

Are portable fire extinguishers provided?

Check whether your unit has a portable fire extinguisher, and, if not, see whether extinguishers are installed in hallways or common areas that are accessible to building occupants. Also, check fire extinguishers to make sure they are provided with a current inspection tag.

Are there deadbolt locks on exit doors?

Exit doors from individual units should have single-cylinder deadbolt locks, which are opened by a key from the outside and a thumb-latch from the inside. Check to ensure double-cylinder deadbolt locks are not installed. (Double-cylinder deadbolts require a key to open them from either side of the door, so if you cannot find the key easily in the event of a fire you may become trapped within your own room or dwelling unit.)

Is there an accessible escape window in every bedroom?

In many cases, an exterior window is the emergency means of escape from bedrooms. For this reason, you should ensure the following:

  • You must be able to open the escape window from the inside. Exterior windows are often nailed shut, or secured in some manner to protect against unauthorized entry, but you should make sure the window is secured in a way that allows you to exit easily.
  • The window opening must be large enough for you to fit through. Open the window to make sure it is big enough for you to pass though, bearing in mind even the largest window panes do not always open fully and may inhibit your exit.
  • You must be able to safely reach the ground outside. You should either be able to reach the ground safely from the windowsill on your own, or purchase a rope ladder for emergency escape. (If the window is located within 20 feet of the ground, and the ground is reasonably level, firefighters may be able to use ground ladders to reach the window. If the window faces an access drive, and is located within 75 feet of the ground, firefighters may be able to use aerial ladders to reach the window.)
  • Security bars should open from the inside without a key or tool. If an escape window has security bars, make sure you know how to open the bars, and determine if they can be opened without the use of a key or tool. Try opening the bars while wearing a blindfold to simulate lighting conditions you may encounter during a fire emergency at night.

Additional Fire Safety Resources

Associated Departments: