Being down and out may be bad, but getting down and out of a high-rise in an emergency is critical—and getting staff to practice can make the difference in a real disaster.
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At 1:30 in the afternoon a fire-alarm pull station was activated on the 53rd floor of one of the towers at Petro-Canada Centre, a property that is among Canada’s largest commercial high-rise complexes. Five minutes later, as fire crews from the Calgary Fire Department headed to the site, the fire alarm system transmitted a message that everyone in the complex should evacuate.
More than 6,000 people immediately began evacuating from the two towers, the food courts, common areas, and five levels of underground parking. Within 50 minutes, most people were out and away from the complex. Responding fire crews helped escort building occupants who needed assistance.
Two hours after the alarm was triggered, everyone was back to work in the complex. This had only been a drill, conducted late last year to simulate a worst-case scenario; the goal was to train employees while also uncovering any flaws in the evacuation plan.
High-rise building managers are sometimes advised that fire drills need not entail full evacuations, but a complete test of a worst-case scenario is the only real way to ensure that the plan works and that tenants will know what to do in a true disaster, such as occurred on 9-11.
Conducting any evacuation drill requires considerable planning. Petro-Canada Centre’s evacuation exercise took weeks to devise, for example.
There are a number of considerations that must be taken into account when creating an evacuation plan, including the local rules pertaining to fire and evacuation drills, the need to coordinate with emergency services, the type of building being evacuated, and the buy-in of occupants. Security must also make sure that it has a good plan, with all the components addressed, that is ready to be tested in a drill. These include the establishment of roles and responsibilities and other key components, such as communications and evacuation points. Next, for the drill to be worthwhile, people must be properly trained. Lastly, it’s critical to conduct an assessment after the drill.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A considerable amount of preparation needs to go into training. There are a number of training mediums to choose from including PowerPoint presentations, life-safety videos, and fire-warden manuals. Training can be provided in person, placed online at the company Web site, delivered via lecture, or given through building familiarization tours. Whatever method a company decides to use, the information should be based on the company’s life-safety manual.
The training schedule is based on the size of the company. For example, I have worked with tenant companies ranging in size from 5 employees to 1,800. While training a small staff is easy, larger organizations must plan a training program. One large company had 300 fire wardens. To facilitate training, security set up rotating training schedules and held classes for 50 to 60 wardens at a time. Some companies may decide to hold training sessions for all employees and others might leave training up to department heads, but all floor wardens must receive comprehensive training.
On drill day, security should first evaluate whether the exercise can go forward. For example, one drill was cancelled because of a violent thunderstorm. Another company chose to postpone a drill because key personnel were missing. However, a cancellation decision should not be made lightly. If at all possible, the drill should go on because emergencies rarely happen in good weather when everyone is at work. These glitches can help the drill mimic a real crisis.
The drill should begin with a scenario that is tied to a specific location. For example, during the Petro-Canada drill, the author placed a cardboard box with faux flames coming out of it in a closet on the 53rd floor. Fire department personnel were told to find the emergency situation and respond accordingly.
During the rest of the drill, the response team followed its procedures as it would in the event of a real emergency. This effectively tested the communications equipment as well as the training of floor wardens and other volunteers.
There will inevitably be some uncooperative people. Individuals who don’t want to participate may not say anything until an evacuation exercise is underway. They may have what seems a valid reason for not participating. For example, one person in the Petro-Canada building had a medical condition that he did not wish to share with anyone. This condition precluded him from walking down the stairs but because he didn’t want anyone to know he was impaired, he simply refused to participate.
Each situation is unique and there are no hard and fast rules about how to respond, but in this case, security convinced the employee to come clean—noting that during a real emergency, he could be seriously injured or die. The fact that the drill uncovered this issue shows the value of such exercises.
In other cases, people refuse with no explanation. Security must make them understand that they are placing themselves and others, including building management staff and emergency services personnel, in danger with their lack of participation.
No matter the cause, all interactions with companies and individuals—especially in cases where there is a refusal to participate—should be properly documented. Having the local fire department on hand, especially on drill day, often helps ensure compliance.
After the drill is completed, it is important to assess results. Getting feedback from participants as to what worked, what did not work, lessons learned, evacuation times, and obstacles overcome is vital to improving the program.
The assessment should be conducted immediately after the completion of the drill before everyone goes back to work. All key participants should be involved, including responding emergency services, and building evacuation staff. Key volunteers such as floor captains and wardens should also be consulted. Notes should be made and kept as a historical record and key issues should be implemented into program improvements.
Preparing for evacuations is a serious issue and all parties must be prepared to commit resources, the two most important being personnel and time. Security teams and building occupants must work together to achieve this critical goal. Lives depend on it.
Glen Kitteringham, CPP, is director of security and life safety with Brookfield Properties in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is the author of Security and Life Safety in the Commercial High-Rise (2006) published by ASIS International.