It's Your Business: Fire Prevention & Recovery

Company officials should identify all articles of value, including business records, that should be stored in fireproof safes or off site.

A fire can ravage a business, as one startling statistic makes clear: more than 75 percent of businesses that suffer a serious fire go out of business within three years of reopening. Businesses that prepare contingency plans, train their employees for emergency situations, and call for immediate professional help with the cleanup stand a much better chance of a solid recovery.

Preparing a fire prevention plan as part of a contingency plan, practicing it, and updating it regularly can help companies and their employees keep alert for situations that might spark a fire. The scale of the basic fire prevention plan will reflect the size of the business, with larger companies developing more comprehensive plans.

Regardless of its size, a business should identify the most significant fire hazards and determine how to eliminate or reduce them. For the most part, though, the strategies for avoiding a fire are elementary: Minimize flash points for a potential fire, such as trash pileups, cardboard paper stacks, and flammable products. Check fire-detection devices and electrical equipment regularly, and maintain sprinkler systems and fire extinguishers. Identify escape routes and keep them clear of obstructions. Finally, keep fire doors closed.

More in-depth precautions involve professionals. An electrician should check for a number of electrical hazards that could trigger a fire, including: frayed cords; cracked switches or receptacle plates; ungrounded plugs or outlets; overused electrical sockets; sufficiency of circuit breakers or fuses; dust or grease buildup on equipment, wiring, or sockets; combustible items near power sources; and the absence of shields on high-intensity lights near flammable items. A security advisor may suggest installing closed-circuit television cameras in key locations to help detect fires early. Company officials should identify all articles of value, including business records, that should be stored in fireproof safes or off site.

By training all employees in fire safety and emergency procedures, the company can reduce the damage to the business should a fire occur. At a minimum, employees should be trained annually in how to follow the evacuation procedures and should be shown how to sound the fire alarm and use fire extinguishing equipment. Another good tip: Train at least one employee per work shift in how to shut off electrical power and gas in case of emergency.

Designate responsible employees to receive additional training to become "fire prevention sleuths." These employees can help ensure flammable liquids are stored in well-ventilated areas away from any source of flames. They also can help police employees who smoke in or near storage areas and watch that proper instructions for using chemicals are followed or chemical spills are cleaned up immediately. Have the employees meet the local fire marshal, and have the marshal talk about the importance of fire prevention tactics and what to do should a fire start.

Hold at least one fire drill every six months to ensure the employees know which fire exit to use. Designate one staff member per shift to be the evacuation manager, the person in charge of calling 911, of determining when an evacuation is necessary, and of ensuring everyone exits the building safely. All these steps on how the company will respond in an emergency should be clearly established in the contingency plan, which should be stored off site. A good plan will help the company be prepared and know whom to contact and what to do if a fire occurs, from the emergency calls to the evacuation, from the cleanup efforts to keeping the business running. It states how all aspects of the business, from human resources to sales and marketing, will continue to function in alternative premises and how you will communicate with them. Some plans even include a so-called "dark site" ready to go on the Internet should tragedy strike and you need to communicate immediately with employees, the community, customers, and other stakeholders.

What If a Fire Strikes?
Despite everything, a fire can strike. Being prepared will help reduce its devastating effects. The first few minutes following a fire are the most significant; any inappropriate action or inaction at this stage can have far-reaching consequences. Just as the appropriate first aid applied immediately after of an accidental injury can save life and promote rapid recovery, the correct response to a fire can keep effects minimal.

When a fire occurs, notify the fire department, the police department, and the insurance company. Next, call a disaster restoration company to help prevent further damage. Because fire departments usually do not recommend specific disaster restoration professionals, a business should reference its contingency plan or contact its insurance company immediately to ascertain the restoration company to call, and then work with that company to minimize damage and business interruption.

By evaluating the materials and surfaces affected, a disaster restoration company can provide an understanding of the fire's chemistry and allow for a targeted, informed restoration effort. Even though each fire's chemistry differs, one of the most important things disaster restoration companies do immediately is wipe down the affected areas to avoid further damage caused by humidity and acidic residues. They will use air scrubbers, which are highly filtered air machines, so soot particles will not recontaminate air and will limit redistribution of contaminated particles while restoration work continues. They will pull all filters from the HVAC system, clean and recondition the system, and then install new filters.

A fire can involve well more than 100 chemical elements. A fire at a business is usually a complex fire, the result of incomplete combustion and fueled by synthetic materials, including those found in carpets, furniture, plumbing, and other equipment. Complex fires cause the most damage and leave the most waste, but disaster restoration professionals can professionally handle the cleanup and restoration.

In a complex fire, acid gases combine with water vapor and penetrate cracks and crevices. When surfaces cool, the gases condense and form highly corrosive solutions. The biggest hurdle for a business can be the secondary damage from acidic gases. Most fires and their byproducts attach to metal, marble, glass, and other materials and etch them, leaving permanent damage if removal is delayed. After a fire, everything affected should be wiped down to remove acid-containing particles with treated dusting cloths or industrial dry cleaning sponges.

Getting Back to Business
The goal after a commercial fire is to prevent the interruption of business as much as possible and to get things up and running to prevent the loss of revenue. How cleanup will occur differs with each business sector; cleaning a grocery store differs from cleaning a general office building or hospital. A good contingency plan and disaster restoration company will help a business recover.

In choosing such a company, look for a recognizable name and 24-hour emergency capabilities. A quick-responding firm with enough personnel to hand the loss and the know-how to deal with all major health issues will have clearly documented work guarantees and training certifications to handle possible dangers from asbestos, lead-based paint, smoke, and other airborne particles.

Any fire is destructive in some way, of course, but by diligently planning to prevent fires and to minimize the damage should one occur, a business can defy the odds against surviving financially and ultimately get its operations back to normal.

This article originally appeared in the September 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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