Getting Them Out Alive

Follow these four steps to create an effective evacuation plan for any workplace, including high-rise buildings.

WHILE preventing fires, gas leaks, power failures, chemical spills, collapses, and other disasters is a top priority for safety professionals, it's equally important to have a well-developed evacuation plan that can be put into action at a moment's notice. As a former New York City Fire Department officer, I've seen firsthand just how crucial a well-coordinated evacuation is to save lives, prevent injuries, and even reduce property damage.

Step One: Make your planning comprehensive.
Your evacuation plan should be part of your comprehensive fire safety plan, which has been reviewed and approved by your local fire department. Your local fire authorities can point out any weaknesses in your plans and help ensure the evacuation procedures coincide with the fire department's on-site operational procedures.

Your plan should specify a chain of command. While the facility manager is normally responsible for directing evacuation, the plan should name at least one qualified alternate to direct the evacuation if the facility manager is absent. Someone trained to carry out an evacuation should also be available after normal business hours when the building remains partially occupied.


It's crucial to pre-plan for all conceivable disasters, including fires, explosions, power failures, bomb threats, chemical releases, and even workplace violence--such as a disgruntled employee holding hostages or going on a shooting rampage. Provide safety training that will help occupants deal with all potential emergencies. Include forms and notification procedures for bomb threats and search procedures. While tornadoes are more prevalent in the South and Midwest, they can strike almost anywhere, and therefore buildings should have designated safe shelter locations in case a twister suddenly appears.

Power failure can make it difficult to evacuate a building. Just in case the backup power fails, be sure to stock plenty of flashlights and spare batteries in a readily accessible area. Stock identification such as armbands and hats so occupants can easily recognize evacuation leaders.

Step Two: Set up a fully equipped emergency command station.
Designate a safe, convenient location in the building lobby as the command post where the facility manager or alternate will coordinate activities during the emergency. Ask your local fire department about the best location.

Having information at your fingertips is crucial, so make sure emergency telephone numbers for the fire department, police department, and emergency medical services are conspicuously posted at the command post. An up-to-date and readily available list of people in the building who are physically challenged should include their normal work location (floor and area). Also, there should be a list of people in the building who are trained and qualified as paramedics, emergency medical technicians, or first aid providers.

You'll need an information kit to be used by the arriving emergency services officer in charge. It should include an up-to-date, easy-to-read architectural drawing of each floor showing the floor layout, floor design, stairwells, elevators, building standpipe system, hose outlet locations, sprinkler system control valve locations, HVAC equipment rooms, air shafts, electrical rooms, chemical storage locations, and elevator equipment rooms.

The kit also should include a building information sheet that specifies the type of construction (such as fire resistive, joisted masonry, etc.), the height and number of floors, size of the floor, sprinklered floor locations, areas of refuge, number and type of stairways and elevators, and service locations: the room where the building's electrical, gas, and water service enters the building, the main shutoff, transformer vault, and hazardous material storage rooms. Additionally, the kit should provide cellphones, firefighter service elevator keys, window lock keys, and keys for access to the building's main utilities.

Step Three: Organize and train an early-stage emergency response team.
The first moments of an emergency--before the firefighters arrive--can be crucial in preventing a small fire from blooming into a large one. Employees can be a great resource if you have people with the right skills.

When creating the team, select members based on their past or present experience and their capabilities, job performance, and willingness to serve. Look for volunteer firefighters, employees with police experience, and people who've been trained by the Navy in shipboard firefighting.

Two team members should be assigned to respond to the floor below the fire to assist in evacuation, provide vital information via radio to the facility manager, and, if safe to do so, help contain the fire by closing doors and using portable fire extinguishers to extinguish small fires. Team members can remain one floor below the fire in a safe location and provide information and direction to the firefighters, such as the exact location and extent of the fire, if known, and other pertinent information. They should report back to the command station after completion of their assignments.

If a municipal fire alarm box is located nearby, another team member can be assigned as an alarm-box runner and remain there to direct firefighters to the facility. This will help ensure the fire department has been promptly notified, regardless whether it has received telephone notification.

Non-Fire Evacuation Drills in High-Rise Buildings

Beyond fire drills, it is also important to plan, train for, and hold "non-fire related emergency drills" that involve full-building evacuation--particularly in high-rise buildings where zoned evacuation and/or defend-in-place strategies are employed for fires.

The World Trade Center disaster has made everyone aware of the need to hold building evacuation drills to deal with catastrophes that go beyond the normal scope of events considered by the building's fire safety plan. These drills require a major commitment of time, resources and special teamwork on everyone's part. Building evacuation drills cannot be substituted for fire drills and related training provided under the fire safety plan. Training in building evacuation must take into account the differences in reacting to a fire in accordance with the fire safety plan as opposed to the need for occupants to evacuate the building during a calamity as quickly as possible.

Planning for a full-building-evacuation exercise, particularly in multi-tenanted buildings, takes a long-term commitment and support on the part of senior management. In multi-tenanted buildings, it will also require close coordination with building management and the other tenants. Building occupants need to completely understand the differences between "routine" fire evacuation procedures and a non-fire related, full-building emergency evacuation, and the procedures to be followed for each. Planners must especially focus on people who cannot walk long distances and stairs because of physical limitations, or because of other disabilities that may require assistance of fellow employees. All occupants must know in advance the location of special assembly areas remote from the building.

Communication is crucial. Inform police, fire and emergency medical services of the impending drill and ask them to attend and assist you; notify all building managers in the area. You'll need to post appropriate signs both inside and outside of the building to inform visitors and passersby of the drill. During the drill, assign additional staff and security personnel to monitor and expedite occupant flow out and away from the exits, monitor various locations in the stairwells for occupants in need of medical or other assistance. Finally, accurately time the evacuation and inform the police and fire departments.

Step Four: Provide safety information and training to occupants regularly.
Occupants need to be educated and practiced in the basics of evacuation so they'll know just what to do in case of an emergency. Life safety information can be provided during semiannual fire drills, in periodic handouts, on the company intranet site, and through other internal communications.

Make sure everyone knows the locations of the nearest fire alarm, the exit from their area, and an alternate escape route should the primary exit become unusable. Make certain they know not to use the elevators.

Emergency team members should be trained to sound the fire alarm immediately when smoke or fire is reported or discovered, to search remote locations for those who may be unaware of what is happening, to direct fellow workers to the assembly location, and to account for the occupants. Buddies should be assigned to assist physically challenged individuals.

Every day, team members should verify that self-closing doors are closed and not illegally locked. They should check that exit signs are lighted and in good condition, that proper housekeeping exists, and that aisles, corridors, and passageways are clear and unobstructed, ready for immediate use. Additionally, a professional loss control consultant should inspect every building annually, report any deficiencies, and follow up to ensure they are corrected.

Give the occupants tips on how to survive a fire--such as feeling doors and knobs for heat before opening them, slowly and carefully opening doors to ensure it is safe to do so, and staying low to the floor in smoky conditions. Anyone who is trapped and can't leave an area should use a cell or office telephone to contact the fire department directly, even though fire units may be on the street below. The fire dispatcher can generally contact the units directly at the scene by radio and give them information about where people are trapped.

Trapped people should close as many doors as possible between themselves and the fire, place wet materials at the bottom of each door, seal cracks around door frames with tape to keep smoke from entering the room, and stay near a window for fresh air. Windows shouldn't be broken, because smoke from below may enter the space. Brightly colored materials can be used to alert firefighters to the location of people who are trapped.

All building occupants should be instructed to always report directly to their assigned assembly point for a headcount. Even if they're in another area of the building at the time of the evacuation, they must report to their group's location to be accounted for. If a full-building evacuation becomes necessary, no one should be permitted to return to the building until the officer in command of the emergency has informed the facility manager or his or her immediate representative that it is safe to re-enter the building.

A good evacuation plan takes planning, practice, and continuing effort. You may never have to evacuate your building, but if you do, a well-designed and implemented plan can make the difference between life and death.

This article originally appeared in the July 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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