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Evacuation Strategies for High-Rises

For facilities managers at high-rises, creating an effective evacuation strategy is critical. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), there was an average of 13,400 reported structure fires in high-rises per year from 2003-2006, resulting in civilian deaths and injuries and $179 million in direct property damage each year.

Equipping for Evacuation

Although accidental fires are the most common high-rise emergency, Robert Solomon, division manager in the Building Fire Protection and Life Safety Department at the NFPA, says facilities managers must prepare for all emergency situations.

“Building managers have to be focused on other instances than just fire,” Solomon says. “There could be a number of other things that trigger high-rise evacuation, such as total power loss or a chemical or chlorine leak.”

Evacuating a high-rise is a difficult task. Solomon says just the height of high-rises makes evacuation exhausting, especially for occupants who might not know what it is like to descend many flights of stairs.

“The evacuation process could take 60 to 90 minutes, and even up to two hours,” Solomon says. “The total number of stories, the flow rates of the occupants using the stairs and the counterflow of firefighters who might be going up those same stairs can all have an impact on the evacuation time.”

Early action can simplify this process. Facilities managers should begin by examining their state and city building codes. Solomon says states adopt their own codes from national codes such as the NFPA 101 Life Safety Code. State rules are often supplemented by federal rules such as OSHA 29, Code of Federal Regulations 1910.38, which deals with existing criteria.

Next, facilities managers should regularly check that all fire protection and safety systems, such as alarm systems and portable fire extinguishers, are accounted for and working properly. They should periodically check automatic sprinkler protection systems as well. The codes require fire department standpipe systems in high-rises.

This system gets installed in stairwells to bring the water supply needed for firefighting to the upper floors of the building. Fire department personnel will normally move their equipment to one or two levels below the fire floor for easier access to the emergency. Once here, they can connect their firefighting hoses into the standpipe system and approach the fire from a safe area.

Practice Makes Perfect

Although adequate equipment is essential, Kathy Roper, associate professor of facility management at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says it’s only part of the process.

“People often have emergency plans but fail to actually practice them,” Roper says. “The practice is really critical. It’s what allows people to remain calm.”

Roper recommends two annual drills: One planned drill to educate occupants on the procedures, and another unplanned drill to test whether the occupants truly know how to react in an emergency.

If conducting full-building evacuation drills isn’t feasible, there are other ways to practice procedures, Solomon says

“Suggest to employees to leave a little early one day, and walk the stairs from the top [of the building] to get a feel for the process — both the time involved and the physical exertion that is needed,” Solomon says.

Rather than implement the plan autonomously, enlist an in-house evacuation team, Solomon suggests. Facilities managers might designate workplace roles, such as floor wardens, stairway and elevator monitors, and communicators/runners. Roper adds that it’s also important to use using a buddy system to assist disabled occupants and pregnant women because elevator use during evacuation is prohibited.

Sizing Up the Strategies

Evacuation strategies aren’t static. The NFPA updates its code every three years, and the new code may require facilities to adapt their evacuation plan. Facilities managers must refresh occupants on any new procedures. Although the information often appears in the employee manual and new employee information sessions, Roper advises everyday exposure.

“Make tenants aware of the strategies in as many ways as possible,” Roper says. “Different people have different learning styles, so I recommend multiple means of access.”

In addition to posting evacuation plans in required areas, post in break rooms and on internal websites and distribute through emails in between drills, Roper recommends. Roper also suggests creating an instructional podcast or video that can be posted on your website.

“The more ways employees and visitors are able to get the information, the better the response in a real evacuation is likely to be,” he says.

High-rise evacuation can be intimidating. The process has potential liabilities because the magnitude of people in a confined space can increase the likelihood of injury. However, implementing an effective evacuation strategy, following the codes, and equipping the facility with protective devices will prepare occupants and mitigate risk and damage during an emergency.


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