Landlord training program results in drop in apartment fires

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: TVF&R - Program participants get a chance to use a fire extinguisher on a real fire during the full-day training.We all know we should install and maintain smoke detectors. We all know we shouldn’t park in fire lanes. We all know we shouldn’t leave lit candles unattended. But do you know why?

From the nitty-gritty of candles and the clear display of house numbers, to installing firewalls and the proper use of fire extinguishers, Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue wants everyone to understand why fire safety is important. And that includes the owners and managers of multifamily housing units.

TVF&R provides fire protection and emergency medical services to a 210-square mile service area, including West Linn and Wilsonville.

After seeing the number of apartment fires continually climb over the years, TVF&R launched its Landlord Fire and Life Safety Training program in 2005 thanks to a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant and five years of development.

In the past decade, TVF&R has responded to almost 1,000 apartment fires in which 18 tenants have died, 50 tenants have been injured and more than 500 tenants displaced. The worst fire was in 1996 at the Oakwood Park Apartments in Aloha where more than 20 tenants jumped from their balconies to escape the fire and eight people died.

It was one of the worst apartment complex fires in the nation, according to Joanne Hatch, TVF&R public education chief. In Wilsonville, three children died in a fire at Autumn Park Apartments in 1995. In West Linn, there was one fatality in a fire at Country Garden Apartments in 2005.

Since the start of the landlord training program, TVF&R has seen those numbers continually drop, with just 48 apartment fires in 2012.

“We’ve watched this number continually go down each year,” Hatch said.

The landlord program is offered four times a year and includes training and free on-site educational resources for landlords and owners of multifamily communities. To date, approximately 1,000 landlords, property owners and staff, and fire service personnel have been trained.

Kimber Hall, a community manager at French Glen apartments in West Linn, participated in the program within the last year.

“I thought it was just going to be a typical day-long training, but it was great. It was very informative,” Hall said.

Though her complex is on the smaller side, just 24 units, Hall said she never understood the importance of having functioning smoke detectors.

“I did not understand the seriousness of that. ... Learning the statistics, that was pretty frightening to be, very eye-opening,” Hall said. Since then, she makes sure all smoke detectors are functioning and have fresh batteries.

Melissa Water, a manager at the Charleston in Wilsonville’s Villebois Community, has gone through the program twice now. She said her company, Cascade Management, requires all its managers to take the training.

“It’s a great program. I recommend it,” Water said. “I can educate my tenants on the safety of having the batteries in smoke detectors and have functioning fire extinguishers. It’s probably one of the best courses I have gone through. I liked that it was hands on.”

In addition to classroom instruction on how quickly fire spreads, common fire causes, the fire inspection process and identifying juveniles misusing fire, attendees have the chance to discharge a fire extinguisher on an actual fire. 

The trainings take place at TVF&R’s Training Center located at 12400 SW Tonquin Road in Sherwood.

For more than a decade now, TVF&R has been working collaboratively with landlords and tenants to create a safer community through education.

“Our research shows that landlords have a pivotal role in keeping tenants and their properties safer from fire, and it is our hope that this unique training will give them the confidence and tools they need to create safer living environments,” Hatch said.

In Wilsonville, there are 33 apartment complexes and 13 have had representatives attending the program, according to Hatch. Those 13 represent 1,494 units and perhaps 3,735 (2.5 in each unit) residents.

There are 37 apartment complexes in West Linn, though many of them are smaller, containing three to six units that don’t have onsite property owners or managers. Of those, five have attended from the larger complexes in West Linn. Those complexes represent 534 units and perhaps 1,335 (2.5 in each home) residents, according to Hatch.

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: TVF&R - A landlord shows a tenant a smoke alarm using one of the TVF&R display boards.

In addition to the Landlord Fire and Life Safety Training sessions, the fire district offers bilingual posters for laundry facilities and common areas, pictorial sheets and a tabletop display highlighting the importance of smoke alarms for new tenant orientation. The research and materials produced for the program were underwritten by federal grants awarded to TVF&R, totaling almost $200,000.

This program is drawing attention not just from those in the fire district but others as far as Vancouver, Wash., Astoria, Bend and Eugene, according to Hatch. The program has also helped train more than 100 fire departments from around the U.S. and more than 20 departments now have some version of the training going.

“It’s a full day of hands-on interactive training,” she said. “The concept of the program is to spend a day walking in the fire service’s shoes.”

The day begins with a video of a real fire TVF&R responded to that shows people leaping from a balcony.

“It’s very graphic. That sets the tone,” Hatch said.

The training includes the importance of having working smoke detectors, having escape plans, keeping corridors clear, fire and smoke safety as well as hands-on CPR.

“What you see on TV is not what you get in real life,” Hatch said. “Our program is based on our research and data within our fire district.”

Fire safety is especially important in multifamily housing complexes where the bad judgment or mistake of one neighbor can affect an entire building.

“You are at the mercy of your neighbor in a multifamily housing situation,” Hatch said. “You are extremely vulnerable. ... Having an escape plan is extremely important.”

With up to 75 people attending each session, Hatch said the landlords and managers build a real camaraderie in dealing with the same types of issues. But perhaps the biggest benefit from the program is that TVF&R is seeing real change. The number and the severity of fires is continually dropping, and when TVF&R make its annual inspections fewer issues are cropping up.

“The beauty of this program is ... we can go back on our inspections and see a difference,” Hatch said. “We are able to see the changes. ... We can watch people change and make a difference.”

In the TVF&R fire district there are 658 apartment complexes and about a third of them go through the landlord program each year, according to Hatch. But for her, it is not the number of program attendees, but the numbers they represent.

“These property owners, managers, landlords and maintenance staff have the opportunity to create safer communities by embracing fire and life safety practices that they learn through the training and during our inspection process. Therefore, reaching thousands of lives in terms of outreach. I believe the over 1,000 attendees represent close to 80,000 residents in our conservative estimates,” Hatch said.

In 2006, TVF&R received the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Fire Service Award for Excellence for its work with landlords. This award recognizes a fire department’s innovations and achievements in managing resources to reduce the loss of life and property from fire and other emergencies. It also received the Golden Sparky award from the Oregon State Fire Marshal in 2010. Kennedy Restoration is the current sponsor of the program.

The next landlord training session is July 16 from 8:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and includes hands-on fire extinguisher training, education tools for tenants, recognizing and resolving fire hazards and youth fire setting hazards. For more information, visit or call 503-649-8577.

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