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Emergency Management May 04, 2021

How to Create a Fire Evacuation Plan for Your Business

These 7 steps will help you develop a fire evacuation plan for your business to ensure your people and property are protected.

Fire season is once again upon us. Does your business have a fire evacuation plan?

When a fire threatens your employees and business, there are countless things that can go wrong—each with devastating consequences. Recently, a fire at an office-hotel building under construction in Seoul rapidly evolved into a dangerous scene as 60 workers on the scene attempted to evacuate. When an office tower in Sydney, Australia caught fire in mid-2018, construction workers on scaffolding had to scramble to safety, racing against the clock as the building’s exterior transformed into a wall of flames.

For many businesses, wildfires are also a pervasive threat due to drought conditions and continued development along the wildland-urban interface. When these fires jump containment efforts or change direction, damage to physical structures in the vicinity can run into the millions.

While fires themselves are dangerous enough, the threat is often 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 evacuation plan not only prepares 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 case of any emergency.

Whether your organization is starting from scratch or looking to improve upon your existing evacuation procedures, here is a seven-step plan to help guide you through creating a fire evacuation plan that protects your people and business.

7 Steps to Improve Your Organization’s Fire Evacuation Plan

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 years from 2007-2011, an average of 3,340 fires occurred in office properties per year. Research found that cooking equipment, intentional acts or arson, and electrical malfunctions were the most common causes of workplace fires. A later analysis by the U.S. Fire Administration confirmed that cooking has been 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” as business-specific as possible. Consider edge-case scenarios such as:

  • “What if authorities evacuate us 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 allows you to create an action plan—helping you move 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 primary 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 essential role in ensuring 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 too heavily weighted towards one department. For example, sales team members are generally more outgoing and likely to volunteer, but you will want ot spread out responsibilities across multiple departments and locations.

3. Determine escape routes and nearest exits

A good fire evacuation plan for your business will include primary and secondary escape routes. Clear signs should mark all the exit routes and fire escapes. These exit routes should be kept clear of furniture or other objects that could impede a direct means of egress for your employees.

For large offices, make multiple maps of floor plans and diagrams and post them, so employees know their evacuation routes. Best practice also calls for developing a separate evacuation plan for individuals with disabilities who may need additional assistance.

Once your people are out of the building, where do they go?

Designate an assembly point for employees to gather. The assistant fire warden should be at the assembly point collecting a headcount 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.

Finally, confirm that the escape routes and the assembly area can accommodate the expected number of employees who will be evacuating.

4. Create a communication plan

During a fire drill, designate someone (such as the assistant fire warden) whose primary job is to call the fire department and emergency responders as well as disseminate information to key stakeholders, including employees, customers, and the news media. As applicable, assess whether your crisis communication plan also should include community outreach, suppliers, transportation partners, and government officials.

Select your communication liaison carefully. To facilitate timely and accurate communication, this person may need to work out of an alternate office if the primary office is impacted by fire (or the threat of fire). As a best practice, you should also train a backup in the event your crisis communication lead is unable to perform their duties.

Once you have identified this critical role, you need to provide them with a robust, multichannel communication system. Reacting to a fire can be very chaotic. People may not have access to their regular communication channels, they may forget to check, and networks could fail.

The ability to send notifications through email, phone, text, and mobile app provides you with a way to reach building occupants at preferred and secondary methods of communication—ensuring your messages get the broadest distribution possible. This also allows you to reach the fire department and emergency responders as quickly as possible. An intuitive emergency communication tool, like AlertMedia, makes this seamless. In the event that some employees have evacuated without their personal phones, fire team leaders should also conduct a manual 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, the next steps, and more.

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 replacing disposable ones every 12 years. Also, make sure you periodically remind your employees about the location of fire extinguishers in the workplace. Create a schedule for confirming other emergency equipment is up-to-date and operable, including:

  • Fire alarms / alarm systems
  • 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 procedures

If you have children in school, you know that they practice “fire drills” often, sometimes monthly.

Why?

Because conducting regular rehearsals minimizes confusion and helps kids see how a safe fire drill should operate, ultimately reducing panic when a real emergency occurs. A safe outcome is more likely to occur with calm students who know what to do in the event of a fire.

Research shows adults benefit from the same approach to learning through repetition.

Key fire evacuation leaders should meet quarterly and plan for an annual or semi-annual full rehearsal of the company fire evacuation plan. Consult any local fire codes for your facility to ensure you meet safety requirements and emergency personnel is aware of your organization’s escape 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.

Download our free fire safety checklist to confirm your organization's readiness in advance of an emergency.

Tips for Employees During a Fire Evacuation

While you likely learned at some point during your childhood to “stop, drop, and roll” if you are on fire, there are other actions you and your employees should take if a fire begins to spread in your office.

Stay low to the ground

If you get caught in smoke, get down and crawl while taking short breaths through your nose. Heat rises, leaving cleaner, cooler air near the floor.

Test door handles

Before opening any doors, feel the doorknob or handle with the back of your hand. If it’s hot, don’t open the door. If it’s cool, open slightly to check if heat or heavy smoke is present. If so, close the door and stay in the room. If NOT, make your way to the nearest exit and close the door behind you.

Go to the nearest exit, stairwell, or fire escape

Always use a stairwell to evacuate from upper floors, never an elevator. Elevator shafts can fill with smoke, or the power could fail, trapping you inside and putting you in harm’s way. Most stairwell doors are built to keep the fire and smoke out if they are closed and protect you until you can get outside.

Other Fire Evacuation Considerations

Some special situations 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 into 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 permanently disabled employees, it’s crucial to plan for anyone who is temporarily on crutches or in a wheelchair. These individuals may need additional help during all emergencies (not just a fire). Update your company’s emergency action plan annually to include the number of people with disabilities who may require special assistance during an evacuation and their primary work location.
  • Develop procedures for employees who remain to perform or shut down critical equipment, operate fire extinguishers, or perform other essential services that cannot be shut down for every emergency alarm before evacuating. When developing these procedures, it is critical that you establish strict guidelines for when to abandon this equipment to maintain personal safety.

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. Given the relatively low cost of cloud storage, investing in a redundant, cloud-based data storage solution is prudent for any-sized business.

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?
Post signage and evacuation maps in easily visible locations throughout the workplace. Exit doors and elevators are primary locations to post evacuation plans to remind employees of the proper route in an emergency scenario. Additionally, ensure evacuation plans and maps are kept up to date to reflect any recent renovations to the workplace facility.

In case of fire, what should we take with us?
During a fire evacuation, fleeing from the fire and getting to a safe location should be everyone’s top priority. If a worker’s mobile device is immediately accessible, they should take it with them 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.

Final Thoughts

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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