In the event of a fire, time is of the essence. Fire spreads quickly, and in the blink of an eye, rooms can become engulfed in smoke and flames. As a business leader, you must quickly and safely evacuate your employees from your building, using a well-crafted fire evacuation plan that you and your crisis management team practice regularly.
There are numerous hazards from a fire, including smoke, which blocks vision, stings eyes and causes asphyxiation; heat, which can reach up to 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit and causes both external and internal burns; and poisonous gases from burning items, which can cause disorientation, drowsiness and other harmful symptoms. Your safety depends completely on advanced planning – so if you don’t already have a fire evacuation plan in place, start working on one immediately.
Establish a Crisis Management Team and Fire Escape Routes
If you haven’t already established a crisis management team, now is the time to do so. Choose select members from your employees who you can trust to organize, maintain and update your crisis management plans and to utilize your emergency notification systems. These employees are responsible for overseeing the evacuation and the safety of your employees as they escape from the building.
Additionally, your fire evacuation plan relies on the establishment of a fire escape route (with alternatives) from every floor of the building. Work with your property managers to determine the best routes in the building. Plan for blocked stairwells, loss of electricity and more – once you’ve established these plans, make sure that your crisis management team members are familiar with this information, as they’ll be responsible for leading your employees to safety. It’s also important to note that evacuation routes should not include the use of elevators, as they will most likely be recalled to the first floor of the building and will be inoperable in the event of a fire.
There’s a Fire in My Building – What Do I Do First?
If someone in your building spots a fire, they should activate the nearest fire alarm and immediately call 911 – after which, they should then contact the nearest member of your crisis management team to inform them of the emergency as soon as possible. The crisis team member should then contact the team leader, who should send out an emergency message to all employees, explaining that there is a confirmed fire in the building and that everyone must evacuate to the pre-designated, safe evacuation area.
Working with Your Crisis Management Team
After informing all employees to evacuate the building, your crisis management team members must organize the evacuation. In your fire evacuation plan, each member of the crisis team should be assigned a designated area to cover (e.g. the first and second floors, or the cafeteria and break room area), and these members should be prepared to lead employees in this designated area through the fire escape route to safety.
For instance, if your fire evacuation plan details an escape route that directs your employees to the stairwell, the crisis management team member on that floor should first ensure that the stairwell is safe and smoke-free prior to leading employees onward. If there is smoke – or if a doorknob is hot (meaning the fire has spread to the next room) – crisis team members are responsible for leading employees to alternate routes.
After employees have evacuated the office, crisis team members should return to their designated areas to ensure that all employees have been evacuated (for instance, someone may be injured or may have missed the emergency notification message). Crisis management team members should do a sweep of their designated areas and utilize a visual system to signify that each room has been checked and that it is cleared – this should be described in your fire evacuation plan prior to any emergency, so that all team members are on the same page. This visual system can be anything from placing a sticky note on each door to either opening or shutting doors so that other team members know that the rooms are clear.
Crisis management team members should be sure to check any bathrooms, closets and communal areas in each designated location prior to leaving the building. If a team member doesn’t see anyone during this sweep, they should take note of this information and report it to the crisis leader. If someone is missing, however, team members should reconcile that list and report it to the crisis team leader at the evacuation area, so you can better determine the status of any missing/injured individuals.
Plan for Employees with Disabilities
Your fire evacuation plan should include assisting employees with disabilities – crisis management team members should make sure that any disabled employee has a designated “partner” (or partners) nearby to help them get past any physical obstacles, the most common of which will be stairwells. There are many ways to accomplish this, including utilizing a stair chair or forming a two-man carry safely down the stairs. You should also contact your property managers about potentially using the freight elevator to assist with employees with disabilities. Select your designated partners beforehand, and make sure that these partners stick together, so that disabled employees can be assisted throughout the evacuation process.
If there is no way to evacuate these employees safely, crisis management team members should make sure that they remain in a designated safe room and should then alert the crisis leader, so that first responders know to immediately assist these employees.
Designated Evacuation Areas
Your fire evacuation plan should include a designated evacuation location - when employees are evacuating the building, they should evacuate to this safe location so that everyone knows where to go and you can better keep track of your employees. In addition to choosing a primary evacuation location, you should have a secondary location designated as a back-up, just in case the primary location is no longer safe or is unavailable.
Tell employees where to go by using these locations in your emergency notification systems – and be specific. Don’t just say, “Evacuate to the primary evacuation location,” because employees may be confused – or they may not remember. Use the name of the actual location (e.g. “Evacuate to Hyde Park”) so there is no confusion.
When choosing locations for your fire evacuation plan, pick one evacuation area that is closer to the building and another that is more than one block away, just in case you are facing a disaster that affects the entire street. For instance, an explosion may occur that renders the entire block unsafe, in which case you’ll want to evacuate to a different street. In addition, each location should be on either side of the building. This way, you’ll be able to choose a safe location, no matter which way the wind is blowing, which will prevent your employees and crisis management team members from breathing harmful gases in the air – like radioactive chemicals or toxic fumes – while waiting at the evacuation point.
Communicating With First Responders
Your fire evacuation plan should also include information about how and what to communicate with first responders. At the evacuation location, the crisis management team leader should inform first responders that each floor has been checked and to provide a list of any missing employees, as well as information regarding which floor they should be on (or were last seen on). Crisis leaders should also report any injuries to first responders so that these employees can be helped as quickly as possible. Crisis team members should work with first responders to make sure that your employees are not blocking any emergency routes that they need to use.
During this time, it’s important that crisis management team leaders establish a point-of-contact with an individual who can provide status updates on the situation. For instance, if you experienced a small, isolated fire, make sure that you are speaking with your property managers, who can communicate the current situation, ensuring that you receive the all-clear prior to re-entry.
Re-Entry and Recovery
None of your employees should re-enter the building unless it has been cleared by first responders and your property managers. Your fire evacuation plan should address potential damage from smoke or sprinklers – for instance, did the sprinklers damage your computer equipment or your servers? Should you move the IT team to an alternate location? Is the building severely damaged? You may need to enact your business continuity plan after a fire – but only after ensuring that your employees are as safe as possible.
Practice Your Fire Evacuation Plan
It’s one thing to have a sound fire evacuation plan – it’s another to actually practice it. Due to building codes and OSHA laws, it’s almost always legally required to perform a fire evacuation in your building at least once per year. How and when that drill is required differs by area – but you and your crisis management team members should always practice this drill for your employees’ safety.
Fire drills can be disruptive, which may lead to delays in practicing company-wide evacuations; however, there are ways to make practicing your fire evacuation plan more pleasant and less distracting. Alert employees that the drill will take place “sometime this week” or “sometime today,” and tell the company that everyone needs to participate as if they are facing an actual crisis.
Additionally, you can schedule fire evacuation drills in either the fall or the spring, so employees are more likely to participate in the drill (due to the mild weather) instead of just skipping out that day. Participating employees should be rewarded with a pleasant incentive, like ice cream, at the evacuation point, to thank hard-working individuals for their cooperation.
How and when you practice your fire evacuation plan is up to you, but you should make sure that your crisis management team members – and all employees – are aware of the steps they need to take to evacuate safely.
About the Author
As the Emergency Management Consultant at Preparis, Inc., Bryan Hill helps companies utilize the industry's first comprehensive emergency preparedness platform, designed to help businesses create a capable crisis team and to improve communication in the event of a crisis. Hill, who has extensive experience in conducting and evaluating various tabletops and full-scale exercises for businesses, hospitals and other organizations, has a master's degree in Public Health with a concentration in Epidemiology from the University of Georgia. Hill was one of the first to receive a Graduate Certificate in Disaster Management from the University of Georgia's Institute of Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense. He is also Advanced Disaster Life Support (ADLS) certified by the AMA and holds multiple FEMA certifications. For more information on Preparis, Inc., please call (877) 544-5845 or visit www.preparis.com