An Operator's Guide for Dealing With Self-Storage Fire: Prevent, Plan, Protect

A self-storage fire is the leading cause of extensive property damage in this business. Proactive prevention can reduce the risk of a self-storage fire, andbeing prepared can limit damage and save lives.

December 10, 2009

7 Min Read
An Operator's Guide for Dealing With Self-Storage Fire: Prevent, Plan, Protect

There’s not much that strikes fear into the hearts of self-storage owners and managers like the thought of a facility fire. It’s the leading cause of extensive property damage in this business. As the saying goes, “proper prior planning prevents poor performance” and, in the case of fire, it’s doubly true! When a fire strikes, there’s no time to hesitate, as lives and property can be impacted in seconds.  
Proactive Prevention

Prevention is by far the best way to avoid a fire. Preventive measures are ongoing tasks and awareness encompassed in the daily routine of property management. Managers and owners should be vigilant in seeking and correcting all potential issues. Minimize injury and loss by following these simple fire-safety practices:

Electrical. Replace electrical cords that have cracked insulation or a broken connector. Do not exceed the amperage load specified for extension cords. Do not run extension cords across doorways or where they can be stepped on or chafed. Do not plug one extension cord into another. Never plug more than one extension cord into an outlet.

Know your tenant. It’s your responsibility to know what your tenants are storing and how it may impact the facility and other customers. If you see something in a unit that may be hazardous, you have every right to require that the tenant to remove it from the property. Be diligent and ask the same of your tenants.

Keep exits clear and well-marked. Keep storage areas, stairways and other locations free from waste, paper, boxes, dirty rags and other fire hazards.

Smoking. Do not permit smoking anywhere on the property.

Rental agreements. Audit your rental agreements to ensure compliance. Making sure agreements are signed and the proper insurance addendums in place will be immensely helpful in the event of an emergency. 
Plan for the Worst

Don’t assume a fire won’t happen at your facility―have a good emergency plan in place. By anticipating potential events, you can plan and practice how they should be handled. Just like you did in grade school, practice the steps that will be taken in case of a fire so there’s no hesitation. When a building is burning, there’s no time to read your operations manual.

Your company should have a well-written emergency procedure so each staff member knows what’s expected to happen and in what order.  This should include fire-safety training, how to identify potential hazards, and a specific policy covering how the staff should respond if a fire occurs. Your policy should include who’s called or notified, how the event is documented, and the method by which staff ensures that the property and people are adequately protected.


How you react in the event of a fire depends on how well you’ve prepared for one. This groundwork includes:

  • Knowing the location of the exit closest to your work area.

  • Posting the fire department’s emergency number on or near your telephone.

  • Being aware of the location of fire extinguishers around the facility.    

  • Knowing the location of the nearest fire alarm and learning how to use it.

  • Having an emergency-planning checklist that includes items such as what to take off site. 

  • Developing a good relationship with the local fire department. It should have the facility’s gate codes, contact numbers, etc. 

Protect Your Business

If a fire does occur, the most important thing is to protect human lives; then protect property.  First, call 911. There’s no room for heroics when a fire has erupted. Get help immediately! The speed at which a fire can consume storage units is tremendous. Don’t hesitate even for a second. In the event of a fire, follow these steps:

Don’t panic. Sound the alarm and call the fire department, no matter how small the fire appears. Never attempt to fight even a small fire until everybody has been evacuated. Do not fight the fire if you’re unsure about the type of extinguisher or how to use it, or if the flames are spreading or blocking your escape.

Leave the area quickly. Close doors as you go to help contain the fire and smoke. Go to the nearest exit not blocked by the fire. Since heat and smoke rise, leaving cleaner air near the floor, crawl low under the smoke. Test doors before you open them. Feel the doorknob and the space between the door and the frame. If either is hot, use another escape route.            

Follow directions from fire and security personnel. Once outside, move away from the building, out of the way of firefighters. Remain outside until the fire department gives the “all clear” signal.
After a Fire

A fire is a very emotional and distressing situation for staff and tenants alike. Don’t leave the aftermath up to chance. Be organized. A planned and practiced response can help keep this event as controlled as possible. Staff should be trained on what to say and what not to say. As emotions run high, it’s important that nothing is miscommunicated.

Remember, this is an unusual and traumatic situation for employees. Their response can have a calming affect or make a bad situation even worse. Tenants will usually respond in kind to the atmosphere of a post-fire event. Owners and managers who maintain a composed and professional attitude will have an easier time dealing with the after effects. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Contact your insurance company immediately.

  • Deny, limit or control access to the affected area as needed.

  • Minimize visual impact quickly. Clean up, board up and repaint as the insurance company allows.

  • Coordinate a method of contacting tenants and others who may have been affected. 

  • Make arrangements for any exposed tenant goods to be secured.

  • Quickly replace or replenish any fire-fighting tools or equipment needed. 

  • Document everything. 


Dealing With the Media

After a fire, the last thing you want to see is the event on the six o’clock news. However, as we all know, news of a self-storage fire will be nationwide before the smoke has cleared, literally. To minimize additional damage to your facility, tenants and wallet, make sure you have one designated spokesperson, and that all employees know who that person is and can direct inquiries in that direction.

Staff members need to be highly guarded, as not all reporters will identify themselves at the outset. Make sure tenant and company information is carefully shielded.  The potential of fire in a storage facility is a real danger. This is a clear case of “hope for the best, but plan for the worst.” 

Remember: It may not seem like it at the time, but this too shall pass. Step back and take a deep breath. Be aware of excess stress, emotion, work and hardship on everyone, yourself included. Coach your staff through the situation and recognize their efforts. It’s probably their first time handling a situation like this, too. 
Linnea Appleby is president of Sarasota, Fla.-based PDQ Management Solutions Inc., which specializes in the management of self-storage properties and offers complimentary services such as operational consulting, new-facility startup, property audits and the “Income Finder Service.”  Appleby is a regular contributor to industry trade publications and a frequent speaker at tradeshows and events. For more information, call 941.377.3451; e-mail [email protected]; visit

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