Fire trends in multifamily housing

By Fred Bales, CFPS, CFI September 13, 2016

Advances in automatic fire and smoke detection, central station alarms, and automatic sprinklers have helped property losses decline slightly in the last decade. But despite the best efforts of builders, code officials, and fire prevention experts, the number of fires in multifamily residential buildings remains relatively consistent.

firefighterRecently, the United States Fire Administration (USFA) issued a special report, Multifamily Residential Building Fires (2012–2014), as part of the Topical Fire Report Series. The report examines the causes and trends of multifamily residential building fires as reported to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS). The buildings include apartments, townhouses, row houses, condominiums, and other tenement properties, which tend to have stricter fire and life-safety code requirements than one- and two-family dwellings.

On average, there are more than 100,000 multifamily residential building fires in the United States each year. The fires result in approximately 400 deaths, more than 4,000 injuries, and $1.3 billion in property losses. According to the report, cooking equipment was involved in:

  • 45 percent of reported home structure fires
  • 17 percent of home fire deaths
  • 42 percent of home fire injuries
  • 16 percent of direct property damage

MultifamilyResidentialBuildingFiresAdditionally, the report states that “cooking equipment was involved in more than two-thirds (69 percent) of reported apartment fires and about one-third (35 percent) of fires in one- or two-family homes, although it was the leading cause in both.” Cooking-related fires present a significant exposure in multifamily dwellings and commercial cooking properties.

Heating equipment had the second-highest fire frequency, at 5.3 percent. The remaining causes were relatively balanced between appliance fires, intentionally set fires, carelessness, and smoking-related incidents. The report also includes information on smoke alarm failure and the presence or lack of sprinkler systems in the structures.

Some other interesting details:

  • Smoke alarms were present and operated in 38 percent of the fires.
  • The evening hours (5 p.m. to 8 p.m.) had the greatest frequency of fires, at 22 percent.
  • Fires peaked, marginally, in January to a rate of 9.4 percent but held constant across the other months.
  • The majority of multifamily residential building fires, 73.8 percent, did not extend beyond the original object or area of origin, such as the kitchen stove.
  • When fires extended beyond the area of origin, the majority were cooking-related fires.

USFA’s Topical Fire Report Series, including the Multifamily Residential Building Fires (2012–2014) report, can be downloaded from the USFA website.

Verisk Insurance Solutions’ Engineering and Safety Service (E&S) offers several resources to help property owners address cooking risks, including:

  • Commercial Cooking – Fire Safety Checklist
  • Commercial Cooking Using Solid Fuels – Fire Safety Checklist
  • Restaurant Nightly Closing Checklist – Property Protection
  • Residential Cooking – Fire Safety Checklist
  • Kitchen Fire Protection and UL 300

Fire prevention is just one of the topics covered in scores of news and technical reports available to E&S subscribers. We offer a wide variety of risk control information, with topics vital to our loss control audience. Our experts provide reports and technical services to subscribers on fire protection, workers' compensation, industrial hygiene, commercial vehicles, product liability, general liability, and other topics. Subscribers are free to distribute E&S reports to policyholders to help educate them on sound risk control. For more information about E&S, click here or download our brochure. For additional information about firefighting, building codes, and their effect on insurance, visit ISO Community Hazard Mitigation.


Fred Bales

Fred Bales, CFPS, CFI is a Manager of Fire Protection, Engineering and Safety Service in Verisk Insurance Solutions.