building evacuation

Using technology for safe building evacuations

An expert highlights how new systems help first responders deploy resources more efficiently
Thursday, August 4, 2016
By Paul Amendola

The National Fire Code requires building operators to have building evacuation procedures in place for all occupants, including any special provisions for persons requiring assistance (PRA). Similarly, the Health and Safety Act requires employers to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect a worker, including ensuring everyone is accounted for during an evacuation.

Building operators and employers can meet these requirements with an approved fire safety plan that outlines emergency procedures particular to their facility. As part of that plan, most employers establish teams of floor wardens made up of searchers, exit monitors, a leader and an alternate leader to assist in evacuations.

When there is an evacuation, the team of floor wardens assembles in a common area, such as the elevator lobby, and quickly sweeps the floor, advising everyone to exit to the nearest stairwell. They also search the floor to identify and lead those that cannot exit to a designated safety zone.

Once the search is over, the floor wardens evacuate outside to their predetermined assembly area, where they advise their employer, fire department or property manager of the location of person(s) requiring assistance either by paper or by memory.

The downsides of lists

Some property management companies and/or employers keep a list of people requiring assistance so that they can provide this information to firefighters and emergency personnel upon arrival. However, if this list is not updated on a regular basis, then it loses its reliability and results in firefighters conducting thorough blind searches.

Lack of updates may also cause emergency personnel to search for someone that is not in danger, or even worse, cause them to miss someone who does require assistance. Without knowing who and how many people require rescue on a threatened floor, firefighters can’t efficiently allocate their resources, putting the PRA and themselves at risk. A better understanding of where people are in the building during an evacuation will help prepare firefighters and ensure the safety of those that cannot exit independently.

Maintaining accurate PRA and employee lists requires regular attention to ensure that they contain the most up-to-date personal/contact information. This task tends to be very labour-intensive and tedious when these details are inputted manually and stored in a printed binder.

In the event of an evacuation, managers could contact each employee known to require assistance and ask their whereabouts. Likewise, property managers could use their PRA list for the building, typically located in their central alarm control facility (CACF) room.

In theory, this works, but it is very time consuming and realistically contains outdated information. This process can also be very chaotic and overwhelming, especially since an evacuation is an unplanned event.

The upsides of technology

Technology has advanced to a stage where managers can easily deploy a system in their workplace to automate the process of accounting for everyone during evacuations. The system lets users add themselves to a specific building and puts them in charge of inputting and updating their contact information.

In the event of an evacuation, the user calls the system (or the system is prompted to automatically call the user, depending on the property set-up) to advise if they are safe. If the individual is not safe, they can input where they are located — for example, on the 35th floor in Stair B.

All information collected becomes available to firefighters upon arrival to ensure they have adequate resources for the threatened floors with PRAs. They will be able to see where help is required. Managers will also have access to this information to ensure their staff is safe.

The technology also allows for one-on-one contact between the user requiring assistance and emergency personnel. The individual is accounted for and can be kept in the loop about the evacuation status if, for example, they are going to be evacuated or if it was a false alarm and no action is required. The technology not only assists firefighters and employers, but also assists 9-1-1 dispatchers by keeping their phone lines clear for serious emergencies.

Technology like this is slowly being adopted in workplaces to bridge the accountability gaps during evacuations and help firefighters in ever-growing vertical cities. Most software solutions on the market take only a few minutes to set up.

These few minutes could make a world of difference in the event of a serious emergency. Such technology allows employers to comply with the Fire Code and Health and Safety Act by ensuing information is accurate and everyone is accounted for during evacuations.

Paul Amendola has more than 10 years’ experience in the life safety industry. He is president and CEO of Rapid Evac.

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