Building Evacuation Questions Answered

08/07/2018 | By Janelle Penny

The recent evacuation of the Frankfurt Airport puts building evacuation plans in perspective for building owners and facility managers. Regardless of the type of facility you own or run, ensuring the safety of the people in the building under your care is crucial. It could even have legal reprecussions, as seen in the MGM Resorts International courtroom battles with the victims and their families of the Mandalay Bay Resort Vegas shooting in 2017.

Evacuation plans are crucial for any building owner or facility manager to create for the safety of their occupants. Rob Neale, principal of Integra Code ConsultantsNo matter where you are in the process, whether you have a strong evacuation or emergency plan in place, have one lying around in a filing cabinet somewhere or haven’t even given it a thought until reading this right now, take a few minutes and internalize this expert advice from Rob Neale (pictured), principal of Integra Code Consultants: 

How can I be sure my evacuation plans are good enough?

Chapter 4 of the International Fire Code talks about emergency and evacuation planning depending on the use and occupancy of the building.

I would recommend people take a look at that, because it actually outlines some of the criteria and helps people with step-by-step guidance on how to develop plans. If you don’t want to do it, just call your local fire department or building department - they can certainly help with evacuation planning. There are also third-party companies that will do it for a fee.

What are the main points that belong in an evacuation plan?

The main thing is, how do you notify people?

I think we’ve all been in situations where the fire alarm goes off and everyone looks at each other, saying “Is it real or a drill?” If it’s an unidentified alarm, it’s important to get people to react and go to the nearest exits and meet in a place where they can be accounted for. 

It’s very difficult in a place of assembly like an airport terminal because you don’t necessarily know who the principals are in the building and how to keep track of them once they’re out. If you evacuate an office building, someone is going to know if “Susan” isn’t outside yet.

More resources: Emergency Management Planning

Airports are kind of an unusual animal because of the security features. You can’t just walk them out of the door. That’s why you move from one part of the building to another part, and the codes address that through fire resistant barriers and things like that. It really comes down to the people who are managing the evacuation to know what they’re doing and help people find their way out.

The biggest part for a lot of folks is questioning when and where it’s appropriate to do an evacuation.

For many years, the approach has been “Let’s get everybody out of the building and get them away from the hazard, and we’ll deal with them when they’re outside.”

That’s not always the best solution.

You’re not going to evacuate an 80-story high-rise building or a hospital or assisted living facility very quickly, so maybe the approach is depending on the occupancy, maybe you defend them in place for a while until you figure out what’s going on and then start a phased evacuation.

What is the most important thing to remember about putting an evacuation plan together?

The takeaway is to plan ahead. No pun intended, but that’s why they’re called plans.

At some point, you want to exercise that plan to see if it works. Until you’ve actually exercised it to see if it’s going to work or not, you really don’t know, so one of the things we always teach is develop your plan, study your plan, evaluate your plan, but then test it and do a drill to see where the shortcomings are and fix them.

Human behavior never turns out quite the way you expect it to.

What should meeting planners do to make sure venue owners have planned ahead for a possible evacuation?

Identify whether there’s a facility safety plan and get a copy of it.

One of the things meeting planners will want to know is what the fire alarm signal or the emergency evacuation signal sounds like. Unfortunately, it’s only been in the last 15-20 years where we’ve come up with the standard fire alarm signal, which is the temporal pattern of three beats or three sounds of a horn, followed by a three-second pause, followed by a three-second cycle of the horn again.

Previous to that, it was not uncommon to have a horn or bell that just rang, or some tones that would come on over a loudspeaker and no one would know what they were.

By having a standard fire signal, at least people know it’s a fire signal.

  1. Identify what the fire signal is.
  2. Identify where the exits are.
  3. Communicate that to the meeting attendees.

Some states require that when you go into a place of assembly like a theater, before the event starts someone is supposed to go up on stage and identify that for them: “Welcome to the Rialto Theater. The fire signal in this building is a standard temporal three-beat signal. Your nearest exits are over here. In the event of a fire alarm, please leave through the nearest exit and gather in the parking lot.”

Katie Downing, digital content specialist at BUILDINGS, contributed to this article.


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