The risks associated with fire should be one of the chief concerns of any apartment-dweller. You can be as responsible as ever, but who's to say your neighbor is as conscientious as you are? He might walk away from a stove or a candle, leave a stationary heater too close to the drapes ... a million scenarios could keep you awake at night.
Anonymity doesn't have to be a fact of life in apartment communities, but let's face it: It often is. Apartment complexes attract residents that often are more transient in nature. They're either not ready to purchase a home yet, or they have no plans to do so. They may stay in the community for a couple of years, coming and going each day without a word to their fellow neighbors. That's why apartment fire safety is your responsibility, and yours alone. It starts within your own unit and then carries to the larger building in which your reside. Your best defense is to know your apartment and know your building -- not necessarily your neighbors, but the layout. Let's start within your own apartment:
First of all, do you have a smoke alarm in your apartment? Before you dismiss the question by responding, "Doesn't everyone?," that's not always the case. Older complexes sometimes don't have them. And among those renters who do have smoke alarms, some merely remove a battery that has died and then forget to replace it. You'll hear it from fire safety experts constantly: Replace your smoke alarm batteries seasonally, whether or not your smoke alarm is "chirping" at you to replace the battery. It's an inexpensive insurance policy.
If you don't have an alarm in your unit, speak to your landlord immediately about installing one if not two alarms at once. Don't take no for an answer. Your landlord certainly couldn't contest your question because of expense; smoke alarms are cheaper than ever, often running around $20 apiece, if not less.
Furthermore, do you know where the fire alarms on your floor are located? Find out, and once again, if you don't spot any, speak to your landlord at once. Do you know how to pull the alarms in the event you discover a fire on your floor? You might suggest to your landlord that he or she hold a brief fire safety meeting for residents, during which instruction on how to pull the fire alarms is provided, and residents discuss escape plans and other safety procedures -- preventive and reactive.
Keep in mind that the vast majority of fire-related deaths are due to smoke inhalation and not the flames themselves. Make sure you're aware of the proper procedures for preventing smoke inhalation (crawling on the ground, covering your mouth with a damp towel or washcloth). Keep some extra towels in a drawer in your bedroom in the event of a fire that breaks out at night -- which, by the way, is when most apartment fires begin.
Keep the number of your local fire department next to your bedside phone. In addition, keep a roll of heavy-duty electrical or duct tape which can be placed over vents or across the bottom of your door, preventing smoke from entering your bedroom.
Let's say you receive a panicked phone call in the middle of the night from a neighbor, telling you there's a fire on the opposite side of the building, and to evacuate immediately. Or someone pounds on your door loudly and tells you to leave the premises. This, of course, is the scenario you would hope for -- you're able to leave your home safely. Will you have an escape route planned ahead of time? Don't have just one route planned. Have at least two in mind. Know where the "exit" stairwells are located, and never under any circumstances should you take the elevator if your building has one.
What if you can't use the stairs to get out? This is precisely why your landlord and your fellow residents, including yourself, must create a safety procedure well before any disaster scenario strikes. Submit a roster of apartment numbers and a layout of the building to your local fire department, so firefighters won't waste precious time trying to locate buildings and individual apartments.
Select a meeting place for your family members following an evacuation, and in your building's "fire safety plan," you also should decide where all residents will meet in the event of an evacuation. This will help quickly determine who is still trapped indoors.
It's never pleasant to consider or talk about, but having a safety plan that starts with yourself and includes precautions for your building will give you a sense of confidence and greatly increase your chances for a swift and safe evacuation in the event of fire.