Fire safety – Everybody’s Responsible, Who Takes Charge?
If there’s one thing to plan ahead for, it’s fire safety. However, while having proper fire precautions in place can save lives, having improper procedures can actually place lives at risk. A story by Colin Todd (2009) in the publication “Fire Safety Engineering” highlights the tendency in the United Kingdom to place the responsibility of fire safety procedures on management. In one example given by Todd, because the manager was responsible for knowing what to do in case of a fire, the first thing a kitchen employee did after discovering a fire in the fryer one morning was to seek out the manager. That was the first thing, not pull the fire alarm. The anecdote goes on to describe the employee going to the wrong floor first, before later finding the manager at the scene of the fire. However, the story didn’t end there, because that manager wanted to seek the advice of the safety manager. All told, it was over 20 minutes before the fire was finally being responded to by the local fire department.
The lesson in the above story is that nothing can be considered obvious when it comes to fire safety. Businesses need to plan and they need to train and empower employees to act when an emergency arises. Furthermore, businesses need to provide proper guidance to their patrons to give them the appropriate information so they may act decisively and find safety should an emergency ever arise.
What sort of fire safety plans should businesses make?
When considering a fire safety plan, there are three bases to cover. The first base is the actual planning behind the procedures. The second is to make sure employees are aware of the plan, and able to act upon it, and the third is making sure the plan is obvious to customers who might be in the building, so they may act.
One major part of a fire safety plan is ensuring the fire department has the correct information for their fire preplan. According to Bob Galvin in Fire/EMS Product News, the fire department’s preplan should use symbols designed by the National Fire Protection Association, to ensure uniformity. The fire department uses these preplans en route to an emergency, and it provides information such as fire hydrant locations, as well as areas within the building of which to be cautious. This information can be crucial in saving property and lives, including the lives of the fire fighters summoned to battle the blaze.
As evidenced by the story about the kitchen employee seeking guidance from a manager when a fire broke out, it’s vital for employees to know what to do in case of a fire. Everyone who works for a business should be frequently reminded and their knowledge tested for evacuation routes, and locations of important tools such as fire extinguishers and manual fire alarms. Fires are emergencies that must be dealt with immediately, and the procedure should be set into motion by whoever discovers the emergency.
Fire safety plans must also include non-employees in the establishment. If a fire breaks out, a person should be able to locate an exit immediately. According to Lanny Burke (2008), “An establishment’s good name doesn’t always translate into good safety practices.” To illustrate that, Burke performed a 10-minute inspection on a Las Vegas Strip-located hotel, and found safety violations ranging from doors that weren’t exits not being marked “not an exit,” to exit signs directing people towards elevators – which wouldn’t be used in an emergency evacuation. As Burke says, “ambiguous exit instructions could easily result in deaths and serious injuries.”
Communicating emergency procedures to non-employees
For many businesses, there are plenty of times customers or patrons outnumber employees. This is one reason it’s important for employees to know what to do. A business doesn’t want its own employees contributing to the chaos of an emergency. Best-case scenario, an employee would be able to direct customers to safety, and prevent a panic.
Since few companies can realistically go over safety procedures with each customer, the next best thing is to direct them with clear messaging on signs. Directions on signs should be easy to understand, ideally, without needing to be read in any particular language. Also, signs should be mounted to walls in a sturdy manner, to preserve the message’s permanence.
When posting emergency signs, sign brackets need to securely attach the sign to the wall at a level where it can be easily seen and read by everyone. Sign brackets that affix signs to walls are preferable to sign stands, which can be moved or manipulated for a variety of reasons, which might render their messages unheeded and unseen when it was most needed.
Moreover, fire safety sign messages need to be as strong as the sign brackets to which they’re affixed. Signs should spell out evacuation routes and hazards. An exit sign should highlight an emergency exit only. In case of emergency, signs and procedures only get one shot to prove their usefulness. This is why exit signs need to meet the requirements of the NFPA, as well as any other local requirements. Also, don’t forget the batteries. Like a smoke detector in your house, an exit sign won’t work if power is interrupted, and the backup batteries are dead. Always be sure to check the batteries in periodic inspections. In a fire, there are many points of failure. Make sure that unclear directions or an untrained staff are not one of them.
Berke, L. Where there’s smoke… there should have been a safety review. (2008). Machine Design, 80(18), 42.
Galvin, B. (2004). Symbolic Meaning. Fire Chief, 481-3.
Todd, C. (2009). FORGIVING THE MANAGEMENT. Fire Safety Engineering, 16(8), 16-18.