Down and Out in Record Time

By Glen Kitteringham, CPP

Local Rules

 The first consideration is that the drills comply with local mandates. Conducting some type of evacuation drill at set intervals is mandatory under fire codes adopted by most local jurisdictions. While the minimum number of drills is usually established by these codes, other issues are subject to interpretation, including how many people must participate and what constitutes a drill. The security manager must tackle these issues at the planning stage.

It’s important to know which agency is the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), because these bodies enforce the codes set by each locality. Generally, the local fire department serves as the AHJ, but it could be another agency. The AHJ can explain what fire code applies and provide a copy of the relevant codes. If possible, security should obtain an electronic copy with a searchable text function. The security manager should also determine whether the building comes under any special exemptions. For example, in some locations, federal government buildings can opt out of local fire rules.

Emergency Services

The growing trend around the world is for security to partner with emergency services personnel in conducting drills and staged events to simulate how they will have to work together in a real disaster. Conducting joint drills clarifies roles and expectations, breaks down barriers between parties, creates learning opportunities, and exposes logistical challenges. Such drills have revealed shortcomings such as incompatible communications equipment and operational differences that could hinder an evacuation.

All of the parties involved will have a chance to learn from the drill. What’s more, having police and fire officials involved is often key to the success of a large-scale drill. In the case of Petro-Canada Centre, for example, thousands of people evacuating the building needed to cross nearby streets, impeding traffic. Having police on hand to assist in traffic and crowd control was critical.

Having first-responders at the Petro-Canada exercise also proved important. Many evacuees experienced physical difficulties when they were forced to travel down 20, 30, or more floors. Security learned that not everyone was in good physical condition, and even those considered healthy and able-bodied often needed help from the local EMS personnel on hand. Of course, the essential reason for involving the local police, EMS, and fire department personnel in the drill is to provide real-life training and to ensure that everyone has a chance to become familiar with the site and the plan before a real situation arises.

Occupant Buy-in

In September 2006, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, based at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, noted that safety experts are rethinking the concept of staged building evacuations. Internationally, companies are working toward full building evacuations, because they are the most effective way to ensure the safety of the building’s occupants.  

Despite the benefits of full building evacuations, some companies resist implementing them. In my experience, companies resist full evacuations for numerous reasons. For example, I have had companies argue that the building is too large or too small for such a treatment or that adjacent properties conduct only partial drills. Another firm I worked with insisted that it could not deviate from the method of prior drills, because it would mean additional training for employees.

This resistance is especially difficult to overcome in buildings with multiple tenants. Given that there’s no mandate, multitenant high-rise building managers may not be able to get everyone to agree to a complete building evacuation in a drill. In that case, they will have to accommodate the wishes of those tenants.

Trying to force the issue is not likely to work. For example, after much cajoling, one tenant in a high-risk building scheduled its fire drill on a day that the office was closed. Fire and security personnel were there, but none of the employees were required to show up, making the exercise meaningless.

If the opposition to full evacuation is too great, the security manager can start with a partial drill. Over time, security may be able to convince everyone of the benefits of gradually migrating to a full building evacuation drill.

Some companies may, however, resist participating even in partial evacuations. They may worry about the financial impact. One brokerage house felt that it could not afford to participate in a drill that I was involved in, for example. Pointing out the potential liability and potential cost of losses due to lack of training in a real emergency may help to convince such companies to participate.

Timing. Once each company’s management has agreed to participate, some of them may ask that they be given advance notice before a drill occurs so that they can avoid having special corporate events or critical board meetings disrupted by the exercise. Generally, security should not give out the specific date and time of the drill. However, a business may demand to be given this information. In such cases, executives should be sworn to secrecy; otherwise, the entire building population will soon learn of the dates, and the element of surprise—an important aspect of the test—will be lost. 



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