Surviving a Burning Building

If you happen to work in a high-rise building, or any building for that matter, seeing a notice for a building-wide fire drill seems like just another inconvenience, right? An interruption to your ability to get things done, intruding on a scheduled meeting, or just the annoying alarm can seem like bad things, but are they really?

The answer is no. Fire drills happen for a reason: To help occupants practice getting out of the building safely in a fire, or other emergency. Think about it. Do you know what to do if a real fire breaks out? Here are a few thoughts.

Take a look at the evacuation plan, if your building has one. This is usually a poster or placard on a wall showing your floor layout and what direction to go to get to the nearest stairwell. From there you should proceed all the way down the stairs to the ground floor exit and exit the building as quickly as possible.

One thing to consider is whether you have anyone in your office or on your floor who is on crutches, in a wheelchair or has other mobility problems. They are going to need help evacuating. In some cases buildings have special wheelchairs made to use in stairwells for evacuations. This is the result of the lessons learned from the tragedy at the World Trade Center, when disabled people had extreme difficulty making it down the stairs.

What about the elevators? Aren't they much faster? Not in an evacuation, for several reasons.

1. The elevator may lose power during the fire and get stuck, with you inside. Now firefighters will have to fight the fire and rescue you.

2. Elevator shafts are a natural chimney, so smoke may quickly fill them.

3. If everyone tries to use elevators, they will fill up quickly and stop at every floor, delaying your exit.

4. Finally, firefighters may want to use the elevator as the quickest way up to the fire location. Evidence of this is on the elevator panel itself in the form of a keyhole labled "fire use only."

So, once you've take the stairs to the ground level and exited, now what? Where do you go? There several things to consider, such as getting far enough away to be safe and not in the way of emergency crews and firefighters. Also, firefighters are going to want a head count to determine if there is anyone left in the building needing rescue. Seconds count here, so you need a way to determine if everyone in your office or on your floor made it out. The best way to do this is to have a designated meeting place for all of you. Talk to everyone to ensure everyone is either there with you or not in the office that day.

A key to accountability for everyone is having a pre-designated location for everyone in your office or on your floor to meet. A parking lot across the street, a vacant lot, or an open field will do, as long as everyone knows to meet there. If it is a big area, designate a specific corner or landmark at which to meet.

Once everyone is accounted for, make sure you tell a firefighter or other emergency responder if someone is missing or still in the building. Then ensure anyone who has suffered an injury gets medical attention, or first aid, whichever is needed.

So, how do you remember how to do all of this? Fire drills! Be prepared for fire drills by

making sure everyone in your office or on your floor knows what to do. Locate the exits, designate a meeting place, have a plan for anyone who is mobility impaired, and ensure everyone knows them.

Is it an inconvenience? Sure. Is it necessary? Absolutely! So next time you get notified of a fire drill, go over the points above with your team to ensure everyone knows what to do. Then practice it during the drill. If a fire, or other emergency, requires evacuation of the building, you'll be glad you did, and you might just save lives.

For more information, download the Hazard Preparedness Sheet entitled "High Rise Building Considerations" here.

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