When a fire threatens your employees and business, chaos and confusion can reign.
Construction fires often move so quickly that workers are forced to do what they can to survive. When an office tower in Sydney, Australia caught fire earlier this year, construction workers on scaffolding had to scramble to safety when the exterior of the building was transformed into a wall of flames.
Wildfires can also be a threat if they jump containment efforts or change direction. Damage to physical structures can run into the millions.
While fires themselves are dangerous enough, the threat can be compounded by panic and chaos if your company is unprepared. The best way to prevent this from happening is to have a detailed and rehearsed fire evacuation plan.
A high-quality fire evacuation plan will not only prepare your business for fires, but rather for any emergency, whether that be a natural disaster or active shooter. By providing your employees with the proper evacuation training, they will be able to leave the office quickly in the case of any emergency.
Here is our 7-step plan to help guide you through creating a fire evacuation plan for your business:
1. Imagine Various Scenarios
When planning your business fire evacuation plan, start with some basic questions to explore the primary threats your business may face in the case of a fire.
Where might fires break out?
The National Fire Protection Association points out that during the five-year period from 2007-2011, an average of 3,340 fires occurred in office properties per year. Most of those fires were caused by cooking equipment, intentional acts, and electrical malfunctions. A later analysis by the U.S. Fire Administration confirmed that cooking was the leading cause of nonresidential building fires for the past 10 years.
How and why would they start?
Take some time to brainstorm reasons a fire would threaten your business. Do you have a kitchen in your office? Are people using portable space heaters or personal fridges? Do wildfires threaten your location(s) each summer? Make sure you understand the threats and how they might find their way to your business.
Since cooking fires are at the top of the list for office properties, put “house rules” in place about microwaving and other office kitchen appliances. Forbid hot plates, in-office microwaves, and other cooking appliances.
What if “X” happens?
Make “X” business specific, such as “What if we are evacuated by authorities and we have fifteen refrigerated trucks loaded with our weekly ice cream deliveries?” “What if we have to abandon our headquarters with very little notice?” It’s a good idea to have a list of “What if X happens” questions and your answers. Thinking through different scenarios moves a fire from something no one imagines into the collective consciousness of your business.
2. Establish roles and responsibilities
When a fire emerges and your business must evacuate, employees will look to their leaders for reassurance and guidance. Create a clear chain of command with backups that states who has the authority to order an evacuation.
Here are the main roles you should consider creating as part of your fire evacuation plan:
Chief fire warden. This employee has overall responsibility for a fire event, including planning and preparation. The Chief Fire Warden will often ensure doors have been closed, check bathrooms, and perform a backup headcount at the safe location.
Assistant fire warden. This person should use the mass alert system to alert employees, call the fire department, and gather reports. If your company is using an emergency communication system, make sure this person is a system admin.
Route guides. Route guides play an important role in making sure that routes are clear and evacuation is orderly and calm.
Fire extinguishers. Some people want to “fight the fire” with a portable fire extinguisher. You never want to fight a fire that has left its source of origin. If you can’t bring a fire under control in 30 seconds, then stop, close the door, and escape to safety.
Floor monitors. The floor monitor is the last person out after making sure the area is clear. They’ll have an assigned area to cover, ensure all employees evacuate, and report back to the Chief Fire Warden once safe.
While assigning roles, there are many important considerations to acknowledge. You want to make sure your fire team is reliable, present, and able to react quickly in the face of an emergency. Additionally, make sure your organization’s fire marshals aren’t weighted towards one department. For example, sales team members are generally more outgoing and likely to volunteer, but you want to make sure your team is spread out across all departments and locations.
3. Create a communication plan
During a fire drill, designate someone (like the assistant fire warden) whose primary job is to call the fire department and disseminate information to employees, customers, news media, and where applicable, other entities such as the community, organizational management, suppliers, transportation partners and government officials.
This person should be carefully selected. They may have to work out of an alternate office if the primary office is affected by fire (or the threat of fire). You should also train a back-up as this is a critical position.
Once you have identified this critical role, you need to provide them with a robust, multi-channel communication system. Reacting to a fire can be very chaotic. People may not have access to their normal channels of communication, they may forget to check, and networks could fail. Being able to communicate through email, phone, text, and mobile app will ensure your communication gets the broadest distribution possible. An intuitive tool like AlertMedia makes this seamless. For those who may have lost their phones while evacuating, fire team leaders should also utilize old school roll call to ensure that every employee is accounted for.
Once that tool is in place, your communications team will need to let the appropriate stakeholders know how the situation impacts the business, what actions they should take, next steps and more.
4. Plan and map routes
A good fire evacuation plan for your business will include primary and secondary escape routes. Clear signs should mark all the exit routes. For large offices, make multiple maps and post them so employees know the evacuation routes.
Once your people are out of the building, where do they go?
Designate an assembly area for employees to gather. The assistant fire warden should be at the assembly area collecting a head count and providing updates. If the fire warden is using AlertMedia to communicate he/she can use the survey feature to quickly determine who is safe and who is still unaccounted for.
Make sure the escape routes and the assembly area can accommodate the expected number of employees who will be evacuating.
5. Know your tools and inspect them
Have you inspected those dusty office fire extinguishers in the past year? We thought so.
The National Fire Protection Association recommends refilling reusable fire extinguishers every 10 years and replace disposable ones every 12 years. Also, make sure you periodically remind your employees about where the fire extinguishers are located in the workplace. They can easily be forgotten about.
While you’re at it, make sure you have up-to-date and operable:
- Fire alarms
- Emergency lighting
- Fire doors (if applicable)
- Escape ladders (if applicable)
- Bullhorn/Megaphone/Traffic Controller Wand for fire marshal
In addition to these crucial fire protection supplies, you should educate your employees about the utility of everyday office supplies in an emergency scenario. For example, office chairs and file cabinets can be used to break through windows or knock down doors in the case of an actual fire.
6. Rehearse fire evacuation
If you have children in school, you know that they practice “fire drills” often, sometimes monthly.
Because regular rehearsals minimize confusion and show the kids through repetition how the fire drill should work. A safe outcome is more likely to occur with calm students who know what to do in the event of a fire.
Adults should do the same!
Key fire evacuation leaders should meet quarterly and plan for an annual or semi-annual full rehearsal of the company fire evacuation plan. Here is a detailed guide on how to conduct a fire drill at work.
For bonus points make a mini-fire evacuation drill part of a new employee’s onboarding process.
7. Follow-up and reporting
Your company’s leadership needs to be communicating and tracking progress in real-time. Fires move quickly, and seconds could make a difference.
Surveys are an easy way to get status updates from your employees. The assistant fire marshal can simply send out a survey asking for a status update and monitor responses in real time to see who’s safe. Most importantly, the assistant fire marshal can see who hasn’t responded, and direct resources to assist those in need.
The biggest challenge you will face is getting reports from people who aren’t in the office. There’s inevitably going to be someone out sick or on vacation. These people obviously won’t be at the rally point so you may start to wonder whether they made it out of the office safely. Make sure you include response options such as “I’m not in the office today” in your surveys to account for this and clarify everyone’s situation.
If you have a large organization, event pages help keep everyone updated with real time info. This will offer employees a web link they can check for real-time updates.
There are some special situations that will vary from business to business, but don’t leave these out of your fire evacuation plan.
Unique work situations.
- Incorporate contractors and temporary workers in your plan. Additionally, remote workers might not be directly affected by a fire, but they need to know what is going on with the business and their co-workers.
- Make sure to plan for any special needs such as disabled workers or other people who may need assistance to evacuate safely. Even if your company doesn’t have any permanently disabled employees, it’s crucial to plan for anyone who is temporarily on crutches or in a wheelchair.
Protection of assets.
- Are there valuable assets that you can easily safeguard or evacuate? You should consider storing critical items that are too heavy in a fire-proof room or safe.
- Your business most likely has redundant storage for sensitive data, but if it does not, make its protection an immediate priority. Even very small businesses can take advantage of economic cloud storage.
Frequently Asked Questions
What action should an employee take first when there is a fire?
Employees should remain calm and immediately default to the emergency evacuation plan. While proceeding to the nearest designated exit, be sure to use evacuation routes and listen to any additional instructions from your fire team.
Where should evacuation plans and maps be posted?
They should be posted in easily visible locations throughout the workplace. Exit doors and elevators are primary locations to post evacuation plans in order to remind employees of the proper route in an emergency scenario. In addition, evacuation plans and maps should be kept up to date with any recent renovations to the workplace facility.
What should we take with us in a fire evacuation?
During a fire evacuation, fleeing from the fire should be everyone’s top priority. If a worker’s mobile device is immediately accessible, they should grab it in order to stay informed and reply to status check-ins. Employees should never stay behind to gather other personal belongings.
How do you prepare for a fire evacuation?
In addition to devising a detailed fire evacuation plan and assigning fire team leaders, you should conduct fire drills to train your employees. Refer to our “How to Conduct a Fire Drill at Work” blog post to learn more.
With a fire evacuation plan in place for your business, you’ve taken huge steps to protect your employees and your business assets. Contact us if you would like to learn more about making communications faster and more effective during crisis events such as fires.
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