How to Avoid the Top 5 Causes of Commercial Building Fires

Commercial building fires put all types of businesses at risk, from manufacturing plants to offices. Statistics gathered by the U.S. Fire Administration estimates that 96,800 non-residential fires occurred over nine years, resulting in 145 deaths, 1,550 injuries and over $2 billion in damages.

Many commercial building fires could have either been avoided or had minimal damage through the installation of an improved fire safety system. An effective fire safety and prevention system for commercial buildings incorporates three main elements: detection, control and extinguishing.

Commercial buildings should have smoke and fire alarms throughout the building. These alarms are all too often forgotten about as an important part of routine maintenance. Fire alarms are not only necessary to be code compliant, but they also help to save lives. Additional equipment, like fire and smoke curtains, should also be installed for maximum protection of both inhabitants and products.

In order to reduce the chances of a fire happening in your building, it's important to understand which factors play a role as well as what containment equipment is most suitable.

5 Common Causes of Commercial Building Fires

From 2007 to 2016, these five causes were identified as the most common reasons behind commercial fires.

1. Cooking/Kitchen Appliances

Year after year, cooking fires remain at the top of the list as a cause of non-residential fires with 25% to 30% of those fires being cooking-related. The fires sometimes started because of human error while cooking and sometimes by an appliance malfunctioning.

Because kitchens are an extremely high-risk zone, strong effort should be taken to ensure they are more than adequately protected. Sprinklers, alarms and easily accessible fire extinguishers are an absolute must.

2. Arson/Intentional

Arson, or an intentional fire, is the next common cause of a non-residential fire, with roughly 10% of fires occurring from arson. Unfortunately, this type of fire causes the most damage to buildings and the highest number of injuries or death in building occupants.

Intentional fires are most likely to occur after working hours, between 3 p.m. to 12 a.m. Fires during later hours of the day often do far more damage than ones started during working hours, as there is no one available to sound an alarm.

An arsonist may start a fire anywhere, but bathrooms, trash cans, dumpsters and garages are likely spots. This is a great example of why you should take care to include fire detection and prevention systems in unlikely places, such as behind the building.

While you can’t prevent arson completely, you can take precautions to limit the damage and opportunities:

  • Make sure trash cans are emptied every day.

  • If possible, keep dumpsters away from the building so a dumpster fire can’t spread to the building.

  • Keep trees and shrubs trimmed to make them harder to set on fire and so arsons can’t use them for cover while setting a fire.

  • Put up motion detection cameras or lights in dark or normally unused areas so any fires can be caught and put out faster.

  • Install smoke/fire curtains near the doorways of the areas most likely to be used for arson.

Since an intentional fire can truly occur anywhere, there is, unfortunately, no way to plan for it. Instead, take the above precautions and focus on standard placement of fire detection and control products within doorways, atriums and elevators.

3. Human Error/Unintentional

Human error, or unintentional fires, are also responsible for about 10% of fires. Because there are a vast number of reasons why a fire might occur accidentally, employee fire safety training is extremely important.

Some examples of an unintentional fire include cigarettes being improperly discarded, employees leaving heating equipment too close to walls or flammable surfaces, forgetting to blow out a candle, keeping a messy workstation or improper use of electrical devices (e.g. extension cords).

Because unintentional fires, like intentional fires, can’t be easily predicted or avoided, it’s essential to educate employees on fire prevention and safety practices and install plenty of fire prevention systems, such as fire alarms and fire and smoke curtains.

4. HVAC System Malfunction

Roughly 9% of fires happen when an HVAC system malfunctions. This includes central heating systems, as well as water heaters, space heaters, and other appliances.

Heating systems should be regularly inspected, especially during winter when they are used most heavily. And always ensure flammable materials are kept well away from heat sources.

Areas where the main HVAC system is housed, as well as any water heaters or storage rooms, should be outfitted with smoke alarms. That way if the system does cause a fire, it can be caught and addressed as quickly as possible.

5. Electrical Malfunction

About 7% of fires are linked to an electrical system malfunction, often due to problems with wiring in the building. These fires are more likely to occur in older buildings with questionable wiring.

However, building owners should also have a new building's wiring systems inspected by a professional as well. Having follow-up preventative checks every few years is also a good idea, especially for buildings that have heavy energy users.

Rooms housing significant electronic systems should have smoke alarms, but in many cases, water sprinklers should be avoided; alternatively, specialized chemical foam sprinklers can be installed. These function just like water sprinklers, but use foam instead of water, designed to extinguish fire in sensitive electronic equipment.

Fire and Smoke Curtains for Commercial Buildings

Fire and smoke control is an integral part of a fire safety and prevention system. Between detecting a fire and extinguishing it, there is an opportunity to reduce the impact of a fire by getting it under control. This is best done through the use of fire and/or smoke curtains.

Fire and smoke curtains deploy from the ceiling of a building, forming a barrier between doorways, rooms, staircases and elevators. This barrier cuts off air flow and limits the smoke to only those rooms affected.

Deployable curtains compartmentalize smoke and limit fire spread to enable building occupants more time to egress from a building. This limits damage to the building and allows firefighters to more quickly find, access and extinguish the fire.

After a fire is detected and curtains or other control systems deploy, the final step of extinguishing takes place. This can be an active approach, such as a trained employee using a fire extinguisher, or a passive approach, such as an automated sprinklers system. Sprinklers systems are a vital piece of equipment and, when combined with fire and smoke curtains, they can quickly stop an otherwise deadly fire.

Fire prevention is a critical component of commercial building management. If you're concerned with your system or haven't had it inspected within the last year, we strongly consider hiring a professional inspector to review your building. If your building is deemed safe, move onto staff fire safety training as well as the installation of additional fire safety equipment, like Smoke Guard fire and smoke curtains.