UPDATED May 27, 2011 - The City of Houston has provided additional Fire Safety Resources. Check out this downloadable Apartment Survey Guide from Senior Inspector Gary Rapsilver.
This guide includes:
- A pre-fire inspection checklist.
- A letter template that you can use to make residents aware of prohibitions on grill usage on balconies.
- Photo examples of fire safety hazards.
- An explanation of City of Houston requirements related to fire safety.
- A template for access gate approval requests and more....
New Fire Department Apartment Inspections Checklist
Learn about what you need to make your properties ready for inspection
As background, HFD initiated a long-term program to inspect every apartment property in the city of Houston for compliance with a list of fire code requirements. There is no fee for the inspection, but coming into compliance may be expensive for some properties, and fines may be issued for violations that are not corrected promptly.
The department has agreed to contact properties before coming out for these inspections and to arrange a mutually convenient date and time. (The department still will conduct inspections without warning when responding to a complaint or when it has reason to believe that a serious hazard exists).
The inspectors will send you a checklist (click here to view checklist). The inspectors use this same checklist when they visit your property.
The following is an explanation of the items on the fire inspectors' list:
Certificate Of Occupancy
The city of Houston Building Inspection Department issues a certificate of occupancy for every apartment building, which is to be posted in the office. If the certificate was issued before 1986, you should have a life safety compliance certificate as well, or a life safety stamp on your certificate of occupancy. Your pre-1986 property should have been re-inspected for life safety compliance one time after 1991.
To get a replacement certificate or inquire about an inspection, call (713) 754-0330.
If you've recently had a life safety inspection and can show that you are within the two years allowed by ordinance to achieve compliance, that is sufficient to meet the requirement that you have a posted certificate of occupancy. Even though you are within the two-year correction period allowed for life safety violations, you still may have to immediately correct the violation if it also violates the fire code (which has no two-year compliance period).
Gas Test Within Past Five Years
Every five years, a pneumatic test of your natural gas system must be conducted by a licensed plumber. Proof that you've had this test is a "verification affidavit" signed by the city plumbing inspector.
No Resident Manager/Owner Emergency Information Posted
For many years, the Houston Fire Code required an apartment owner or manager to live on site. In 1994, that was replaced with a provision stating that if the owner or manager did not live on site, a notice stating the name and telephone number of the owner or owner's agent in charge of the property must be posted "in a conspicuous place on the premises."
You do not have to post anyone's home phone number. An office phone number is fine. The Fire Department would prefer that it be a number that rolls to an answering service after hours, so you can be reached in an emergency.
Access Gates - Fire Department Approval
If you have controlled access gates, a set of drawings approved by the Fire Department must be available on site.
Fire Permits Posted
This mostly means the combustible waste storage permit (Dumpster permit). It should be current and posted in the office. You also may need a special permit if you store large amounts of chlorine (more than 200 pounds solid, or more than 20 gallons liquid).
Business Address Posted
City ordinance requires that your business address be posted to allow emergency vehicles to find your property.
Apartment Directory Posted
A city ordinance requires that a directory be posted near the principal entrance to the premises. The directory must indicate the location of every unit. The directory is not required if every unit's identifying number is visible from the street.
Unit Numbers Posted
Every unit should have a number on or within 18 inches of the main entry door. Unit numbers should be 3 inches high, unless they were there on May 22, 1979, in which case they have to be at least 2 inches high.
Buildings with four or more units must have building numbers posted at each end of the building and must indicate which units are in that building. Required numbers should be at least 4 inches high.
Swimming Pool Fenced
Every apartment pool must be surrounded by a 48-inch-high fence, with no openings larger than 4 inches and with a self-closing, self-latching gate.
Dumpster In Proper Location
Dumpsters cannot be within 5 feet of a wall opening or a combustible wall, and cannot be placed on streets, sidewalks or in a public right of way. They cannot block emergency access to the property or impede access to fire protection devices (don't put it in front of a fire hydrant).
Trash On Ground Or Around Building
You won't be ticketed for minor amounts of everyday litter. The inspectors are looking for piles of garbage.
Improper Use Of Barbecue Pits
No use of barbecue grills within 10 feet of any building. Grills can be stored on balconies (if you allow that) but cannot be used there.
Improper Venting Of Gas Appliances
All gas appliances (dryers, boilers, hot water heaters, etc.) must be properly vented to the outside to prevent accumulations of carbon monoxide.
Laundry Room - Lint & Trash Accumulations
Lint traps should be cleaned frequently. Fire inspectors may need access to lint traps in spaces behind dryers, which on some properties are secured with a lock belonging to a laundry vendor company. Talk to your laundry vendor before the fire inspector visits to make sure that you can provide the necessary access.
A large accumulation of trash is not allowed. Any trash can larger than 40-gallons generally must be metal, with a tight-fitting lid.
Exit Obstructed Or Blocked
Make sure fire exits are not blocked.
Unsafe Exit Balconies Or Stairs
This one can be tricky. Residents who place large potted plants on the balcony next to their door (between their door and the stairs) may be blocking an exit path for themselves or their neighbors. Similarly, the storage of bicycles and other items in exit paths is a violation. Also, motorcycles and other gas-burning machines cannot be stored under a stairway.
Bars On Escape Windows
If you have burglar bars, one window in each room without an exit door must be rigged so a person can crawl out if necessary.
Illegal Locking Device On Exit Doors
Inspectors are mostly concerned with locks that require a key to exit from doors leading out of common areas — such as from a common hallway to the outside — although the Fire Code also prohibits locks that require a key to exit an individual unit (i.e., double-cylinder deadbolts).
Provide Approved Attic Access
For buildings with attics, scuttle openings were required to have been provided when the property was built. The inspector will want a list that shows the location of each attic opening (they sometimes are in the closets of individual units). The inspector will want to look in each attic opening to assess the condition of attic draft stops.
Provide Or Repair Attic Draft Stops
This will be the big-ticket item for some properties. Over the years on many properties, maintenance personnel and outside technicians (telephone, cable, etc.) have cut holes in these required separations and have not patched them up. The number and location of required draft stops has changed over the years, but the draft stops that were required at initial construction must be there, and any perforations must be patched.
Combustible Storage In Attic
You can't store combustible material in the attic.
Combustible Storage In Mechanical, Electrical Or Boiler Rooms
You can't store combustible material here either. If you've been keeping lawn mowers and gas cans in a boiler room, don't.
Holes In Sheetrock Need Repair
They're really talking about boiler rooms here, especially where a wall separates a boiler room from an occupied space.
Fire Hydrant Reflectors
This is a brand new requirement. Have you ever noticed those square blue reflectors near the middle of public streets? Those mark the location of fire hydrants, and help firefighters find them — especially at night. The Houston Fire Department is now requiring them in private streets and driveways. They should be placed just off the center line, toward the fire hydrant. The double reflective blue markers measure 4-by-4 inches, and cost less than $3 each. They are glued to the pavement with an epoxy adhesive.
Bare Or Exposed Electrical Wiring
This is self-explanatory. Be sure to check rooftop air conditioners, where this seems to be a frequent problem.
Other Electrical Problems
Be sure all electrical boxes have covers that close. Make sure that electrical outlets near your pool have ground fault interrupters (GFIs), and that electrical pool equipment (pool lights, pumps, etc.) is similarly protected.
This can be tricky. State law clearly says the owner must provide a working smoke detector for each unit at the beginning of tenancy, but that it's the resident's responsibility to make sure it works after that.
The fire inspectors don't care whose fault it is, they just want smoke detectors to be there and work. If they find one missing or inoperative, they will ask to see a move-in/move-out inventory or other document where the resident has agreed that the owner provided a working detector. If you can't show that in writing, they will hold management responsible.
Fire Alarm System
If you have one, it has to work properly and be tested annually.
Portable Fire Extinguishers
The Houston Fire Code always required a fire extinguisher for every 75 feet of travel distance. However, the Fire Department has changed its view on this requirement. HFD has recently approved a new rule requiring small (1-A, 10-B:C) extinguishers in every non-sprinklered apartment unit in the city of Houston. Learn more about the requirement.
Fire Protection Appliances
Before 1981, apartment buildings had to have hose cabinets. If you have them, they must work and be unobstructed. Some newer buildings have fire sprinklers. If your buildings have sprinklers, the sprinkler system must be operational.
You can't store more than small amounts of gasoline, and it has to be in an approved container. You need a "no smoking" sign where you keep your gas can.
Chlorine needs to be on a palate 4 inches off the floor, which is a good idea anyway because it makes leaks easier to spot. You can't store more than 200 pounds dry or 20 gallons of liquid chlorine without a special permit. Your pool chemical storage area should be marked as such.
Compressed Gas Cylinders/Propane
Don't let anyone (roofers, etc.) store compressed gas cylinders or propane canisters on your property without checking with your local fire station to make sure proper procedures are being followed. Also, if you keep large helium tanks on your property for balloons, there are special requirements you must follow.