The tragedy in an apartment block in Vilnius’ Viršuliškės district, where an explosion and fire killed two people and left thirty families homeless, has left many wondering whether fire and explosion prevention is being properly carried out in their homes. Who is responsible for this and what measures need to be taken to ensure a safe apartment building, says Andžejus Gabrunas, an energy and fire safety expert at Civinity Namai, a company that administers and supervises apartment buildings.
Regular maintenance of the apartment building is mandatory
In order to ensure the safety of the inhabitants of apartment buildings, the law provides for compulsory maintenance of the engineering systems of apartment buildings. This is carried out by the administrator of the apartment building. If the apartment building is managed by an apartment owners’ association, the chairman of the association is obliged to organise the technical inspection and repair of the systems.
“If the maintenance technicians find major technical deficiencies in the systems, such as electricity, fire safety, ventilation, plumbing and sewage, they must take immediate action to remedy the faults. If the deficiencies identified do not endanger the safety of the residents, it is up to the owners of the flats to decide whether to carry out such work,” says a Civinity Namai specialist.
Meanwhile, the responsibility for the functioning (tightness) of the gas management system in an apartment block can be shared by the administrator or the community chairman, as well as by the gas supplier, depending on how the limits of responsibility are defined in the case of a specific apartment block.
Fire can be caused by old electrical wiring
Residents of an old block of flats should make sure that the electrical wiring in their house is up-to-date to reduce the risk of fire.
Usually, the wiring in such blocks of flats is unusable due to the increased demand for electricity from the occupants, and the insulating material covering them is often crumbled and burnt.
In accordance with the rules governing the installation and safety of electrical installations, including fire safety, such electrical installations are unfit for use.
According to Mr Gabrunas, even if the electrical installation is in good working order, regular inspection and maintenance work is necessary.
“Dusting, contact changes, electrophysical measurements, checking for illegally installed wiring, proper connection and sealing of all electrical connections, and maintenance of common lighting must be carried out on a regular basis,” says a representative of Civinity Namai.
Uncleaned ventilation ducts can spread a fire throughout an apartment block
To prevent the spread of fire in a block of flats, it is essential to ensure that the natural exhaust ventilation system in the flat is cleaned regularly.
Dust, debris and grease start to accumulate over time in the ventilation ducts of a block of flats with the extracted air. Kitchen hoods, when exhausting air, also trap grease particles, which eventually coat the ventilation ducts with a layer of grease, and the grease is a good source of combustion for the rapid spread of fire.
According to Mr Gabrunas, if the ventilation/exhaust system is not regularly cleaned and a fire breaks out in the apartment, it can quickly reach the grease-laden ventilation/exhaust ducts and spread throughout the apartment block, making it extremely difficult to extinguish the ventilation/exhaust ducts.
It is not only recommended that residents of blocks of flats should ensure that their ventilation ducts are cleaned regularly. Cleaning and disinfecting them is compulsory according to the Building Regulation.
Storage of explosive and flammable materials is prohibited
The fire safety regulations lay down a general rule that no explosive or flammable materials may be stored in an apartment block.
“Explosive and combustible materials such as fuels, aerosols, compressed air, gas cylinders, paints, etc., are prohibited in the apartment and in the basement of the apartment building. From the end of this year, gas cylinders will be banned in residential buildings, so residents who still use them should hurry up and get rid of them,” says Gabrunas.
Fire safety in the home
Fires in flats pose a serious risk to the occupants of the entire block of flats. This is why it is essential to keep fire safety requirements in mind and to provide safety equipment.
Residents should make sure that the electrical wiring in their home is in good order and not use electrical socket outlets (two-prong, three-prong). Care should also be taken with any sources of open flame in the home: do not leave unattended food, burning fireplaces, candles, or burn them near objects that may catch fire.
“We also recommend that smoke detectors are checked regularly in every apartment, and that a fire extinguisher is carried and checked for its expiry date,” says Gabrunas.
Ensuring a smooth evacuation in the event of a disaster
Staircases, corridors, balconies and emergency exits in the common use areas of apartment buildings must not contain objects that would hinder evacuation in the event of a fire. It is also forbidden to block or load aisles in cellars, drying rooms and balconies.
“We have a frequent problem when apartment dwellers decide to store certain unusable items such as building materials, furniture, and sometimes rubbish in stairwells or basement common areas. In the event of a fire, rapid evacuation of the occupants is crucial, so any items littering the passageways are prohibited, pose a high risk to all occupants and increase the risk of a fire spreading quickly,” comments the Civinity Namai expert.
For a smooth evacuation, it is also essential to ensure that doors and hatches in the common corridors and emergency exits of blocks of flats are not locked.
Not all maintenance professionals are insured
Although maintenance of engineering systems in multi-apartment buildings is mandatory in Lithuania, the requirements for the professionals who carry out maintenance vary. One of them is compulsory civil liability insurance.
Civil liability insurance is compulsory for administrators of multi-apartment buildings and without it, companies cannot operate. Thus, in the event of an accident and if it turns out that the administrator has not carried out his/her duties properly, the damage caused by the administrator would be compensated by the insurer.
In contrast, this is not compulsory for housing associations and their presidents.
“This should be taken into account when choosing the person responsible for the technical condition of a block of flats, and an insurance policy should be requested at the time of appointment,” recommends the representative of Civinity Namai.