Do You Have an Evacuation Plan that Works?

Every emergency contains a list of things that went wrong or could have been done better. It is essential this information be evaluated and adjustments made.

FIRE, tornado, bomb threat, hazardous material spill--all are emergencies that can, and often do, strike without warning. They are disruptive to normal operations. They frequently cause serious injury, property damage, and production downtime.

Planning to prevent and/or contain these emergencies requires considerable input from key management members and other experts. Readiness programs can become complex and sophisticated with involvement from many care-providing and emergency containment sources. Effective coordination is critical.

In many cases, preparation can be as simple as developing a good evacuation plan. How effective are your internal emergency response programs? Can they mitigate property losses and prevent needless injuries when an emergency develops?

An OSHA standard (29 CFR 1910.38) provides that all employers must have a written emergency preparedness plan to protect employees from injury resulting from fires and other emergencies. The program must include an alarm system, evacuation maps that outline exit routes, emergency lighting, and employee training (an annual fire/evacuation drill). The primary emphasis is on employee protection (safe building evacuation). There are four key elements in an effective program:
1) Communicating the emergency plan
2) Providing building "safety information bulletin boards"
3) Training your employees
4) Evaluating evacuation drills and emergency performance.

Communicating the Emergency Plan
All employees must be aware of procedures required to "sound an alarm." This implies the location of fire alarm stations are identified and that employees can activate them. In addition, exit routes, fire extinguisher locations, and outside assembly areas must be designated.

Employees also should be instructed not to use elevators, and provisions should be made for "search & rescue" while the evacuation is in progress. Disabled employees, visitors, and employees who are in transit between work areas must be included in the evacuation plan. Developing an Evacuation Checklist for use by supervisors when briefing employees is essential.

A typical checklist might include the following key points:
A. Preliminary Evacuation Instructions

  • Review exit locations and emergency travel routes.
  • Identify fire extinguisher and fire alarm locations.
  • Provide information about emergency lighting.
  • Establish an outside assembly area.
  • Designate Emergency Assistance Teams and Search and Rescue Personnel.

B. Evacuation Instructions

  • Review evacuation instructions posted in hallways.
  • Outline fire emergency response procedures.
  • Advise employees not to use elevators as exit routes.
  • Instruct employees to assemble in a designated area following evacuation.
  • Report any missing employees.

C. Re-Entry Instructions

  • Instruct employees not to re-enter the building until the "all clear" signal is given by a designated individual.
  • Advise employees to return by the same route they used to exit to determine whether any congestion occurred during the evacuation.

Information about emergency evacuation can be communicated during employee break periods or lunch periods, via employee newsletters, or in special training sessions. Whatever media are used, periodic follow-up communications will be necessary to maintain awareness levels.

Providing Building 'Safety Information Bulletin Boards'
A "building safety information board" is one way to have a centralized source of updated safety information. It can contain emergency evacuation instructions, floor plans and exit routes, and fire emergency response procedures.

The "safety information boards" should be conspicuously located in places where they can be seen by all employees who are assigned in the immediate work area. It may also be desirable to frame the posters and to cover them with a red or green transparent acetate covering. This will draw additional attention to the safety information.

Training Your Employees
The quick and orderly execution of your evacuation plan is the primary objective. Employees who practice emergency evacuation procedures, who are trained to operate fire extinguishers, and who know how to assist in the evacuation of disabled individuals will be of valuable assistance in accomplishing the overall objective. This generally means conducting periodic evacuation drills, training sessions with a local fire department, and advance planning with disabled individuals.

All employees should understand that fighting fires with fire extinguishers should only be done when personal risk is not an issue. In addition, search and rescue teams need to know who is on the job if possible, where the visitors are located (if possible), and the means for evacuating any disabled employees.

The final critical element in the training program is assembly at a designated location away from the emergency site. Headcount is a major consideration. Any employee not accounted for should be promptly reported so that additional rescue efforts by firefighters or other trained personnel can commence. Once the emergency evacuation has started, no employee should re-enter the building until the all clear signal is given.

Evaluating Evacuation Drills and Emergency Performance
There is no emergency that does not contain a list of things that went wrong or could have been done better. It is absolutely essential that this information be collected, evaluated, and adjustments made to ensure that future emergencies and/or drills do not contain the same pitfalls.

A performance evaluation meeting should be conducted following each practice drill or emergency. Employees should be encouraged to participate in the critiquing process and in the development of alternative procedures.

Other Emergencies
Many other types of emergencies can result in emergency evacuation or other immediate emergency responses (e.g., bomb threat, explosion, tornado, hostage taking, industrial sabotage). A safety or emergency planning committee can be established to evaluate the potential for these emergencies and plans can be developed to ensure the safety of all employees when, and if, the emergencies occur.

"Table top" exercises or other simulated practice exercises that address these emergency conditions and responses can provide excellent information about your emergency preparedness. Employees are your most important asset: They deserve your best emergency planning.

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

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