Ensure all employees are trained and know what is to be done in an emergency, including emergency egress during a fire.

Back to Basics: Safe Egress

Ensure all employees are trained and know what is to be done in an emergency. Review the plan with new hires or newly assigned employees so they know the plan and their responsibilities.

In the years since fire, building, and life safety codes had initially been developed, safety professionals and researchers have looked at increasingly technical means of ensuring life safety from fires in buildings. Unfortunately, many property owners and managers continue to forget one of the most basic elements of life safety: maintaining a safe means of egress.

One of the first considerations should be placement, capacity, and numbers of exits. Exit doors that exist in buildings often are not situated so occupants can readily see them or know they are present. This is particularly true in theaters, clubs, concert halls, and other entertainment venues. In locations such as these, occupants, including patrons and staff members, often will resort to retracing the route they took to enter the facility rather than leaving through the nearest means of egress.

An example is the Station fire that took place in a nightclub in West Warwick, R.I, in 2003. In this case, theatrical pyrotechnics used on stage as part of a performance by the band Great White ignited combustible soundproofing foam, and fire spread quickly through the unsprinklered nightclub. One hundred of the approximately 462 occupants inside the club at the time died and 230 were injured. Most of the panicked occupants attempted to exit through the same front entrance by which they had arrived, unaware of or disregarding three other direct exits that were present. Part of the reason they might not know the locations of the other exits was that these were not readily discernible to occupants because of their placement or insufficient exit identification.

The number of exits and the path of exit travel is a significant consideration in emergency evacuation planning. The Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Southgate, Ky., in 1977 killed 165 occupants and injured more than 200 others. The facility had barely more than half of the required exits, and many of these were insufficiently marked or identified. In addition, because of a series of construction projects that had taken place over a period of time, occupants had to travel through a series of doors in order to reach safety.

Keeping Paths Open
An additional factor in maintaining a safe means of egress is the need to prevent improper storage in corridors, stairs, and exit routes. Building occupants and event building managers frequently may tend to ignore items that have been placed in corridors "temporarily," especially when they perceive they lack adequate storage space. It could be the transient clutter caused by a large number of college dormitory residents trying to move in simultaneously, each with large amounts of personal items and carts being left in a corridor. Similarly, it might be the long-term placement of carts and equipment in hospital and health care facility corridors under the mistaken assumption that wheeled items won't be a constraint to evacuation or to access by emergency responders.

Yet another consideration is the failure to ensure that exit doors swing in the direction of exit travel when a space is occupied by more than 50 people or is considered high-hazard occupancy. Unfortunately, spaces are often modified after the initial construction or renovation, and door swing is often not considered as the occupancy type or number of occupants changes. In the Iroquois Theatre fire in 1903, 602 occupants died when they were unable to escape from a fire in this supposedly "fireproof" building. In this case, many doors opened inward so that people attempting to escape blocked the door swing and were trapped behind the doors they could no longer open as the crowd surged behind them. Additionally, many of the doors were equipped with an unfamiliar vertical lock at the top and bottom of the door. As a result of this fire, panic hardware that would enable occupants to push against an exit bar and escape began to become required by codes.

The locked exit doors at New York City's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory that resulted in the deaths of 146 people, mostly young women, during a 1911 fire are well known and helped lead to the establishment of a variety of improved safety codes nearly 100 years ago. In fact, the American Society of Safety Engineers was formed in New York City only a few months after this tragedy, partially as a response to this large loss of workers' lives.

In many cases, even in recent history, exit doors have been locked or blocked to prevent pilferage or to prevent access by unauthorized persons.

At the Happyland Social Club Fire in the Bronx, N.Y. in 1990, a disgruntled suitor used gasoline to ignite the only stairway in the unlicensed club. Because the fire exits had been blocked to prevent people from getting into the club without paying the required cover charge, many of the occupants were unable to escape, and 87 died. Only two years before, the club had been cited for not having adequate fire exits.

A 1991 fire in a McCrory’s store in a Long Island, N.Y. enclosed shopping mall resulted in the deaths of two young workers who were unable to exit the store, and 29 shoppers were injured. The corporation agreed to a $500,000 OSHA penalty settlement for allowing exit obstructions.

The fire at the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant in Hamlet, N.C., in 1991 caused 25 deaths and 54 injuries of workers who were trapped behind locked exit doors. The plant's owner pleaded guilty to 25 counts of involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 20 years in prison, while the company was assessed $808,150, the largest such fine the state had ever levied.

The elimination of required exits is an additional concern. In February 2010, a fire occurred in the Carlton Towers in Bangalore, India, killing at least nine people. In this case, fire exits on many floors were eliminated due to corridor encroachment. Apparently, each floor had 16 units, but in several areas purchasers bought two units and then closed the corridors, combining the two units and preventing access to the fire exits from other units in the same area.

Similarly, improper modification of dwelling units in the Bronx resulted in the deaths of two firefighters and serious injuries to three others in 2005 when the firefighters were forced to jump from a fifth-floor window. Tenants in this building had built partitions that divided up the apartments, blocking egress and creating a maze.

Finally, even administrative controls can be inappropriate and can lead to loss of life during fire emergencies. In Mexico City's Lobohombo nightclub, patrons trying to use the club's only exit were stopped by security guards who wanted proof they had paid their bills before leaving. This 2000 fire killed 20 people and injured about two dozen others. Witnesses described panic when smoke began filling the club and occupants rushed to reach the sole exit. The nightclub had been repeatedly cited for safety violations but obtained numerous appeals and injunctions in order to remain open.

In many cases, fire safety personnel in high-rise buildings have encouraged occupants to remain in their areas during fires on other floors or areas. The delayed evacuation during the 2001 World Trade Center attacks has often been described as having prevented some employees from escaping before the buildings collapsed.

Summary of Back to Basics Steps to Take
Fire exits

  • Have at least two means of escape remote from each other that are to be used in a fire emergency.
  • Do not allow fire doors to be blocked or locked when employees are within the buildings, except where an approved alarm system is integrated into the fire door design.
  • Ensure exit routes are clear and free of obstructions.
  • Ensure exit routes are properly marked with signs designating exit paths.

Emergency evacuation plans

  • Ensure there is a written emergency action plan for evacuation of employees that describes the routes to use and procedures to be followed by employees. The plan must be available for employee review. Procedures for accounting for all evacuated employees must be part of the plan.
  • Ensure a plan exists for assisting employees and visitors with handicapping conditions.
  • The plan must include procedures for those employees who must remain behind temporarily to shut down critical plant equipment before they evacuate.
  • Ensure the means of alerting employees to a fire is part of the plan and an employee alarm system is available throughout the workplace and is used for emergency alerting for evacuation. The alarm system may be voice communication or audible signals such as bells, whistles, or horns.
  • Ensure all employees are trained and know what is to be done in an emergency. Review the plan with new hires or newly assigned employees so they know the plan and their responsibilities.

About the Author

Leo J. DeBobes, MA (OS&H), CSP, CHCM, CPEA, CSC, EMT, is Assistant Administrator, Emergency Management & Regulatory Compliance at Stony Brook University Medical Center and a past president of the American Society of Safety Engineers' Long Island Chapter.

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