Down and Out in Record Time

By Glen Kitteringham, CPP

Plan Components

t’s no good to drill unless you have in place all of the plan components that you want to test. Among these are roles and responsibilities, special needs, communications, and evacuation points.

Roles and responsibilities. The number of people responsible for conducting the evacuation drill can vary significantly among companies. However, in general, the security department leads the drill and the evacuation. One person from security will serve as the drill coordinator and will oversee the entire event.

Volunteers will comprise the rest of the personnel. In a commercial high rise, each company will have a chief fire warden and a floor captain assigned to each floor. The number of floor wardens on each floor will depend on the building size.

Who fills these positions may depend on the organization. For example, the author works with oil and gas companies that have health and safety departments whose members are tapped for the volunteer positions in the drill.

Each person on the drill team has specific tasks. For example, floor wardens tell building occupants what is expected of them when the building alarm system is activated. During the drills, and actual emergencies, floor wardens remind occupants to evacuate calmly, while providing information about the location of the nearest emergency exits and where those exits will take them. Floor wardens also urge evacuees to leave behind nonessentials, such as their coffee, newspapers, and work papers, but they urge them to bring critical items, such as their coats if it’s cold and their keys, because they cannot be sure when they can come back.

Another issue is who will communicate messages to the general building population in a drill or actual emergency. It may be the coordinator, a member of the security team, or a trained volunteer. In addition to addressing what should be said over the emergency broadcast system, security managers must think about how it is said. Often the only link the incident team has with building evacuees is the announcer and if that person is nervous or unsure, it will be quickly picked up by the building population, who in turn may also become nervous.

Tracking employees in an evacuation is also a concern and should be someone’s responsibility. The task is challenging under the best of circumstances but it is compounded because day-to-day, most occupants aren’t required to let anyone know their whereabouts. In some cases, they go home ill, go to a meeting on another floor or in another building, head off for lunch, or decide to come in even though they are not scheduled.

To address this issue, each company should designate someone to keep track of employees during the drill. Areas of safe refuge must be identified in advance and should have some form of communication available. Optimally, the area should be equipped with two-way fire phones, specially installed intercoms, or hardwired phones.

It’s also important that staff be able to identify the key personnel who can help them in an emergency. The evacuation team should consider wearing armbands, unique headwear, or fluorescent safety vests. In addition, it may be necessary to stencil letters or symbols on the vests or headwear identifying the incident coordinator or other pertinent decision makers.        

Special needs. Most building occupants will be able to fully participate in evacuations without special assistance, but the plan and training must accommodate those who can’t.

According to recent NFPA guidelines, there are five different groups of people who are considered disabled for the purposes of evacuation. These people have impairments in mobility, visual, hearing, speech, or cognition. Security should make sure that the plan and training comply with any applicable laws and regulations applicable to these groups.

Security can probably receive useful advice in this regard from community councils and committees that deal with the disabled. For example, the local fire marshal and I have made educational presentations before community groups, such as the Barrier-Free Council of Alberta. At one recent meeting, I found that more than half of the members had a handicap that impaired their mobility, yet none of these individuals had participated in an evacuation drill for several years. The presentation provided an opportunity for both groups to learn from each other about their needs and concens.

Security must discuss personal evacuation plans with any person who meets the NFPA definition of disabled. To identify these individuals, security needs to talk generally with the building population about the special challenges inherent in evacuations. Then, security should ask those people who think they might have problems in any aspect of the evacuation—walking down numerous flights of stairs, for example—to contact their floor warden separately. The floor warden can discuss specifics with the employee to determine how best to evacuate them in an emergency.

This information must carry over into the drill. During the Petro-Canada drill, the Calgary Fire Department moved a dozen people who had limited mobility. Mobility impaired individuals should always be involved in evacuation considerations and, like all other building tenants, they should be trained so that they know what is expected of them.

Communications. The plan must address how security will communicate with building occupants during an emergency. The communications must meet code requirements, including addressing those with special needs.

When an alarm is triggered, a prerecorded message will alert occupants. Then, either the system or security personnel will announce the evacuation. If the drill is a staged evacuation, the announcement will instruct occupants of certain floors to evacuate. If the drill is a full evacuation, the message will indicate that everyone must leave. Ideally, security should first announce a staged evacuation and then a full evacuation, as this is how events tend to play out in real life.

Security should make public announcements at regular intervals and should keep in touch with volunteers via radio or cell phone. Once security has determined that the stairwells are empty and that there is no one else in the building, they should broadcast an all-safe message. Security staff can then serve as runners to alert those at off-site evacuation rendezvous points that it is safe to go back into the building.

The broadcast system also should be used to let people know of problems as they arise, such as stairwell blockages or other issues that might affect the evacuation. People can be quite forgiving if they know what is going on. By contrast, in the absence of valid and reliable information, they may become impatient, angry, confused, or frightened. That can cause them to commit errors of judgment that further compound the danger already present.

Evacuation points. The plan must specify the locations to which people should report when they evacuate. This will include both off-site rendezvous locations and shelter-in-place refuges for persons with special needs.

Off-site areas. The plan should designate at least two—one primary and one secondary—off-site evacuation rendezvous points. These sites should not be too close to the facility being vacated.

There are at least three reasons why people should move well away from the building. First, if they don’t continue moving, the evacuation slows down. Second, by gathering in the immediate area, they can block access to emergency services. Third, in an actual incident, proximity to the building may be hazardous.

Building inhabitants should be forewarned that these locations may not be in hospitable environments. Knowing that they may have to be outside in the heat or freezing cold may help them be prepared. Otherwise, they may end up, as happened in one drill, standing outside in below zero weather with no coat.

The plan must also have contingency options for a large-scale disaster. In such a case, as occurred with Hurricane Katrina, previously identified areas of safe refuge may no longer be accessible or may be full of other evacuees, requiring that people move to a more distant backup location. 

Temporary refuge.Security may designate areas of safe refuge within buildings where those difficult to evacuate may be asked to wait. (Depending on the type of emergency and the location of the refuge area, the employees may be evacuated later or might remain until the drill is over.)

It is especially critical that this part of the plan be well executed in a drill. The security manager must recognize that people awaiting evacuation may feel that they have been forgotten or ignored. These negative perceptions may lead to unexpected serious consequences during the next event, whether real or practice, if these individuals choose to ignore the plan and practice “every man for himself.” They could also lead to lawsuits if the disabled feel their rights are being ignored.



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