Over 13,000 fires occur in high-rise buildings each year. The majority of those take place in offices, apartments, hotels, and healthcare facilities, according to a 2009 report by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Between 2003 and 2006, these fires cost 29 lives, 320 injuries, and $44 million in property damage.
That’s why fire prevention and life safety rank among the most important responsibilities of a building security director.
Apart from testing and maintaining the fire alarm and sprinkler systems (chores handled only by certified specialists), the security director has a lengthy to-do list: conduct a fire protection survey, create and administer a preparedness training program, conduct drills, monitor the fire alarm panel, and execute an evacuation plan if a fire does break out.
Conduct a Fire Prevention Survey
Like a security assessment for a high-rise building, a fire prevention survey and report needs an expert’s eye and judgment. Consider commissioning an outside consultant to guide the way.
Each building needs a tailored checklist to cover all the bases. This typically includes building layout and exits, emergency exit signage, fire alarm and suppression systems, fire extinguishers, construction materials, storage procedures, fire/life safety education, and insurance.
After the survey, a report will point out weaknesses in the fire prevention program and recommend measures to address those problems.
Geoff Craighead, vice president with Santa Ana, CA-based Universal Protection Service and author of High-Rise Security and Fire Life Safety, notes that fire prevention surveys should become a regular building inspection routine. Surveys might also be carried out after an incident occurs or when preparing for visits from fire officials, insurance company representatives, or building owners.
Preparing for the Worst
“I tell tenants straight out – if you think a firefighter, security professional, or police officer will escort you out of a building in which an emergency is occurring, you’re kidding yourself. You must know the procedures so well that when the time comes, your training takes over,” says John Tello, assistant director of life safety and security with Boston Properties in Boston.
Tello recommends that tenants in his facility, the Prudential Center in Boston, assign an emergency response team for each floor they occupy. A tenant fire warden manages each team, which consists of individuals responsible for searching the floor and directing others, helping people with disabilities, avoiding elevators, and managing exits.
The fire wardens from each team receive an evacuation manual and attend training sessions on a range of fire and life safety procedures, from evacuation training for their floor teams to participating in building-wide drills.
Drill, Drill, Drill
Tello conducts two building-wide drills every year, one in the spring and the other in the fall. Tenants don’t have to participate. “We offer the opportunity to participate in drills to all tenants, and we typically get positive feedback,” Tello says.
Participation rates have risen in the last decade, Tello observes, noting that the events of 9/11 taught people how important it is to know how to get out of a high-rise building during a crisis.
“An emergency doesn’t always have to be fire and smoke,” he says. “You could have a catastrophic water leak or a power outage. There are a host of problems that could lead to an evacuation.”
Evacuation problems noted by firefighters in reports inform the drills Tello runs. “Many buildings run incomplete drills,” he says. “People get up from their desks and line up at the stairwell but don’t go into the stairwell. When there is an emergency and an evacuation is called, tenants that haven’t practiced the real thing can get confused. “
“Some buildings, for instance, have crossover floors where the stairwell ends on one side of the building and starts up again on the other side of the building. If you haven’t practiced getting fully out of the building, it can slow you down during an emergency,” Tello adds. “We try to drill exactly the way it will happen in an emergency.”
Mass Notification is Key
The spring drill at the Prudential Center is a full-building evacuation. In the fall, the drill involves a temporary re-location in which people relocate three floors down.
Each drill begins with an alert tone from the fire alarm system and a follow-up voice message made over the fire alarm system’s public address feature. The initial live voice message announces what the tone has already indicated – there is an emergency in the building, the fire department is investigating, and stand by for further information.
In some parts of the country, the tone and the announcement would only be heard on the floor of the emergency plus the floors above and below, Tello says.
In Boston, for example, the building codes require a building-wide emergency alert. “The philosophy is to let all occupants know about the emergency,” Tello says.
Occupants of the floor where the emergency is located and on the floors above and below receive a different initial message. Evacuation signals tell occupants on those floors to move to an area of safety at least three floors below the incident.
“When the fire fighters arrive, they assess the situation and make decisions about evacuating certain floors or the entire building,” Tello says. “Then at the direction of the fire department, live and scripted announcements are made to get people out of the building.”
With consistent training and if the emergency response teams study and practice often enough, your vigilance will pay off in a real emergency – when everyone gets out alive.
Author’s note: Many thanks to ASIS and Honeywell Fire Systems for assisting with the research for this article.