Evacuation Planning

Feb. 19, 2007
An evacuation procedure that is properly planned, practiced, and executed can mean the difference between control and panic

By Anne K. Goedken

Imagine this: A tenant sits comfortably at her desk, sorting through e-mail, when the wail of your building’s alarm system blares throughout the hallway. A light haze of smoke hovers near the ceiling. What does she do first? Does she jump up and run, screaming “fire”? Or, does she calmly launch into a routine that she’s practiced before? A complete building emergency-evacuation plan can be the difference between control and panic, organization and chaos, and life and death.

Create a Written Plan
Facility emergencies include not only the threat of fire, but the threats of chemical infiltration, city-wide blackouts, natural disasters, and more. While you can’t foresee every event that will require the tenants/occupants of your building to evacuate, one basic written plan should suffice for a variety of ominous events. The Quincy, MA-based National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) states that, as long as your written procedures clarify the actions to be taken and when to take them, fire-evacuation plans should be adequate for many other types of emergencies. “Providing a thorough, detailed, and robust evacuation or emergency plan to the occupants is key to a successful evacuation strategy ... in a word: preparedness,” says Robert Solomon, assistant vice president for building and life safety codes at NFPA.

The Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) requires that any workplace with more than 10 employees records emergency action plans in writing. Among other things, this document must state the procedures for emergency evacuation, including exit-route assignments. This plan must be reviewed with employees when: 1) the plan is created or an employee is given a role in the evacuation plan, 2) the employee’s responsibilities within the evacuation plan change, or 3) when the plan is revised. You can create an emergency action plan in accordance with federal OSHA requirements using the OSHA Emergency Action Plan Expert System at (www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/

Consider the Needs of All Occupants
Besides those individuals who may utilize wheelchairs regularly, seemingly able-bodied occupants may become immobile during an emergency evacuation due to unseen ailments (such as heart conditions or asthma). Bruce McFarlane, Sr., director at the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) TARGET Center (the USDA’s support system for assistive technology and ergonomic solutions), stresses representation of individuals with disabilities on any emergency-response committee or team. Also the disability advisor to the incident commander at the USDA, McFarlane offers this advice: “Once you realize that, by law, you have to account for people with disabilities, you have to make provisions for them. To go back and change what you’ve already implemented will cost you twice as much. You’re better off incorporating people with disabilities from the start.”

The disability representative (and, by extension, the planning team) needs to examine every aspect of the plan from four different perspectives of individuals who: 1) are blind or have low vision, 2) are deaf or hard of hearing, 3) have mental or cognitive disabilities, and/or 4) have mobility or dexterity challenges. Considering the needs of all these groups will lead to an evacuation-notification system that alerts all building occupants to an evacuation and gives them the tools needed to get out safely.

Enhance Your Notification System
Ensuring that everyone in your facility is aware of the need to evacuate is a crucial part of a plan. But, if you think an alarm system with horns and strobes is the end of the conversation, you’re not protecting building occupants as well as you could be. “In certain assembly occupancies, and in most high-rise buildings, a voice-communication system is essential to allow [for] both recorded and live-voice announcements, as well as to provide supplemental direction to the occupants,” Solomon advises.

These notification systems should be tested regularly for malfunction and to make sure that all occupants can hear the alarms and messages. During a full-building evacuation drill at his facility, Thomas Shultz, senior facilities operations manager for Hennepin County, MN, found out that the alarm system at the Hennepin County Government Center (HCGC) was not effective. “The problem was - to describe it in simple terms - like having a small stereo [standing in] for a big sound system at a rock concert. We needed the big sound system,” he recalls. The facilities team has since increased the amplification of the alarm system.

One organization that offers a great example of evacuation notification is the USDA. Its Employee Emergency Response Guide includes 11 different methods of notification: 1) strobe lights, 2) pagers, 3) e-mail, 4) computer notification programs, 5) voicemail, 6) two-way radios, 7) bullhorns, 8) TV-LAN announcements, 9) public-address systems, 10) a phone system linked to the emergency command center, and 11) electronic message boards. “The No. 1 focus is to [disseminate] accurate and timely information, and the USDA has taken that principle to the nth degree. All of our emergency planning is centered around notification - getting the information out there,” McFarlane explains.

Decide Who Should Evacuate
In high-rise facilities (the NFPA defines a high-rise building as one that is “more than 75 feet in height from the lowest level of fire-department vehicle access” [usually 7 stories or higher]), a full-building evacuation is often impractical and unnecessary. “Staged or partial evacuation/relocation actions are the preferred and most sensible action when planning evacuation strategies in a high-rise building,” Solomon says. “In this scenario, a typical action is to alert occupants on the fire floor as well as the floors immediately above and below the [fire]. Those occupants are usually instructed to descend to a lower floor and await further instruction. Because of the layers of added safety features in most high-rise structures, this course of action arguably makes sense in 100 percent of fires in high-rises.”

Even though it is rarely used in high-rises, Solomon recommends that building occupants become familiar with and practice a full-building evacuation plan. “This course of action may be necessary in less-than-life-threatening conditions, such as an extended electrical-service outage. Occupants should have some idea [of the] rigors of walking down a flight of stairs, familiarity with the stairs, and familiarity with the different options and contingencies that they may have to consider.”

Plan for Post-Evacuation
A successful building-evacuation plan should also account for what happens once building occupants are outside the building. Assembly areas should be located at a safe distance from the building and beyond what Shultz refers to as the “dead zone.” In other words, make sure there’s at least one building between the tenants/occupants and the building they just evacuated. “[In a] major event, like what happened in New York City on 9/11, if you crossed the street, you weren’t any safer,” he comments.

Also, consider the dangers lingering outside of the evacuation site (which may include roads and highways). In the USDA’s case, evacuees need to cross 6-lane Independence Avenue. “We were taking people away from the potential danger of the fire or whatever [was] inside the building and throwing them into another danger,” McFarlane says. Now, security personnel are responsible for stopping traffic as soon as the building alarms sound.

Once evacuees have arrived at the assembly area, a head count should be taken. Tracking visitors via a building sign-in sheet or more advanced recording system will allow you to account for everyone at the designated meeting place. Some software programs will allow you to access visitor information outside of the facility from a handheld wireless device. In the case of a sign-in sheet, train the individual at the front desk to bring that information with him/her in the event of an evacuation.

Conduct Drills Regularly
Having a written plan and a top-notch notification system will mean little if you don’t take the time to train occupants on how to actually get out of the building. The most common method of training is via evacuation drills. Although it’s impossible to replicate the conditions of a fire or chemical infiltration, drills allow occupants to learn how to safely relocate and use evacuation routes. NFPA 101 Life Safety Code® lists the required frequencies of emergency drills in certain types of facilities, but for those that aren’t regulated, such as office buildings, the organization recommends conducting drills as often as is practical.

Partial evacuation drills cause minimal disruption and usually accomplish the awareness and training necessary. Before its first-ever full-building evacuation in 2004, the occupants inside the 24-story, twin-tower HCGC were performing semi-annual partial evacuations. Shultz attests that a full-building evacuation drill is both useful and necessary; otherwise, he says that the facilities team never would have discovered the problems with the alarm system during one of their semi-annual partial evacuations.

Experts agree that full-building evacuation drills should be performed occasionally, but not necessarily on a yearly basis. “A full-building evacuation drill will give occupants an appreciation for the physical challenge of descending many flights of stairs. This is a relatively easy task in a small, 5-story office building, but may become more complex and rigorous in a 40-story building,” Solomon comments.

Because of the disruption that full-building evacuation drills cause in larger facilities, proper planning is essential to avoid confusion and receive the most benefit from the drill. “The single biggest [lesson learned] was training,” Shultz observes. “We knew it was important, but it proved to be invaluable. By having people as well-trained as they were, we had no injuries and we evacuated the entire building, including 90 persons needing assistance, within 27 minutes.” (See Planning a Full-Building Evacuation Drill in the sidebar for a detailed look at HCGC’s evacuation planning.)

The logistics of certain facilities make occupant training difficult or impossible. In these situations, staff members may be the only ones able to go through training and drills, making their knowledge and guidance essential in an evacuation.

Another component to a successful building evacuation is proper training of floor wardens (building occupants responsible for ensuring that everyone in their area is able to safely evacuate). OSHA’s guidelines for emergency action plan training suggest that one floor warden for every 20 employees should be adequate. On each floor of a high-rise building, Shultz recommends designating one lead floor monitor, one deputy floor monitor to assist the lead floor monitor, and one alternate floor monitor (in the event that one of the others is unavailable at the time of an evacuation). Whether volunteers or appointees, they should undergo extensive, site-specific training on building egress routes so that, in an emergency, they are aware of areas to avoid and employees that need extra assistance. They are also responsible for checking rooms and enclosed spaces to ensure that no one is left behind.

Increased awareness of evacuation issues in recent years has made tenants and occupants more willing to learn and practice procedures, but building management needs to kick-start the process. “Fundamental requirements, such as providing proper and reliable illumination in exit stairs, clearly marking the egress routes, [providing] a written plan to all occupants, and raising awareness of which actions are appropriate [in] an emergency are cornerstones of the procedure,” says Solomon.

Anne K. Goedken ([email protected]) is new products editor at Buildings magazine.

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