If you consider the potential of being left in your workplace which is on fire whilst all your work colleagues gather outside at an ultimate place of safety as being a nightmare prospect, then you may wish to consider the following.
As part of your employers’ fire risk assessment, there is an element concerning identification of persons at specific risk. On the basis that it is a criminal offence to deliberately place persons at risk from fire & or smoke, then it is of particular concern that we conduct Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPS) for all persons for whom we have responsibility. If we categorize such persons, then we may look at the employee, student, regular visitor, those receiving medical care & residential care users. This article is looking specifically at all the afore-mentioned so I have deliberately omitted those one-time visitors as they may come under the Generic Emergency Evacuation Plan.
So, how may we establish if a person requires assisted escape from the premises? For most there may be an obvious answer, in so much as they are in a wheelchair or otherwise appear incapacitated to the extent that the stairs are a physical barrier to their escape. However, there are a considerable number of persons with hidden conditions that just wouldn’t ordinarily appear to require any degree of assistance. Interestingly, 1.9 % of the UK population uses a wheelchair, yet less than 8% of disabled persons are actually wheelchair users. (UK Census). Clearly, there has to be a very large number of employees and others with various types of recognized disability or impairment. Those with Heart Condition, Angina, Epilepsy, victims of stroke, suffering from Vertigo and other health or medical concerns. It is an unfortunate fact that many of these conditions come to the fore as a direct consequence of 2 key triggers. These triggers are extremely prominent during circumstances of fire but also during other circumstances as the world is becoming increasingly aware; it isn’t just the risk of fire that we now face. The 2 triggers that I refer to are of course heightened anxiety & exertion. Those that enter & egress the building via a lift or elevator if you’re reading this in the US, will now be forced to use the stairs; having such concerns as previously alluded to, may mean that their escape is somewhat slower than others & much more protracted with the consequences of delaying others that may be able to move far more quickly. This impedance will have another adverse outcome beyond the obvious, as the protected stairway is now compromised as the fire doors may have to be held open longer to allow for the queue to dissipate. Or as one of my old college lecturers would put it…. “When is a door not a door?” When it’s ajar!
If we now consider how we may provide all possible pro-active measures in order to remove & manage these problems using simple strategies, then no person needs to be subjected to such life threatening circumstances. I’m sure that most people reading this will have at some time in their working life experienced the Fire Drill. You know the situation off by heart as perhaps every six months upon activation of the fire alarm everyone appears outside the building and gathers in a very orderly fashion whilst their name is called. For those that are not directly concerned with administering the drill, have we ever thought about what goes on in the back ground post event? All those tabard wearing individuals are summoned to a meeting where the usual issues are discussed such as-
- Why were people allowed to use the accommodation stairs, rather than the fire protected stairways? Shouldn’t these have been isolated by the attendant fire wardens?
In my professional experience few fire wardens would be able to differentiate between a fire protected stairway & an accommodation route. An important consideration based upon potential of harm & subsequent prosecution.
- Why weren’t the refuge areas used for their intended purpose?
Few individuals fully understand the concept of the refuge area. Many employers still mistakenly believe that they can leave disabled persons in a refuge area for the Fire Service to attend to. BS9999 refers as the approved code of practice.
- Why were disabled persons being assisted in evacuation chairs at the same time as pedestrian traffic filled the stairwells?
This is often due to the misconception that disabled persons should evacuate first. Again, this demonstrates a lack of understanding concerning refuge areas & compartmentalization strategies. As I shall refer to later; Fire Wardens should not be Evacuation Chair Operators as this dilutes their role and adversely influences the reporting procedure. Evacuation Chair Operators should be dedicated to their task.
- Why the reporting procedure by the Fire Wardens wasn’t properly executed?
This is an interesting question & sheds light on the often absence of training of Fire Wardens. Having experienced this scenario for real, with attendant senior fire officer asking “who has checked the toilets”? “Who has checked the inner rooms”? “Are there any persons reported”?
The simple solution is the statement “I have carried out a thorough inspection of my designated area which is…., I have checked all toilets & inner rooms & there are no persons reported within my designated area”.
This does present an interesting prospect during a serious blaze, if not executed properly & the Fire Service are turning on the pumps for high pressure water!!
- Who gave the order for persons to re-enter the premises prior to the all-clear?
If the Fire Service are en-route, then only the Fire Officer can issue the all clear. In absence of such as in a drill, then the incident controller to whom all Fire Wardens would report would assume this responsibility.
- What did we learn & what measures might we apply to make improvements?
Clearly, lots to learn given this brief example; including better training for Fire Wardens which must take into consideration the type & purpose of the building and other types of evacuation procedure such as Phased Evacuation, Staged Evacuation or Progressive Horizontal Evacuation, all of which present their own complexities. We may even be advised by the Security Services to remain within the premises. Many buildings fall under the category of high risk such as major retail stores with shelves full of volatile products. The level of urgency and speed of escalation of fire may be very high despite suppression systems, with the added complexity of dealing with the general public, some of whom won’t want to evacuate but will want to record everything on their IPhone for later submission to their friends. Finally, who didn’t arrive outside within a recognized suitable time frame? This may indicate a person who cannot move quickly and who has failed to advise their employer of their difficulty. This person would habitually use the lift and never the stairs. When the lift is isolated such as during fire alarm activation, only then would their condition become apparent. The alternative to this person is the individual that doesn’t have time for the drill and chooses to continue working on their latest assignment despite being chastised by the Fire Warden who is doing his duty. This individual has the potential of being prosecuted by the Fire Service or worse still, dying in the fire as he will assume that each event is just a drill.
It may appear at first view that I am being derogatory towards our Fire Wardens. My response to that would be absolutely not, but many years of experience within this industry has shown that our much maligned Fire Warden is also tasked with being the First-Aider and the Evacuation Chair Operator. In this business, we call these protectors “The Same Old Suspects”. Once again a term of endearment as they appear due to their wonderful sense of duty to be given every task going, including and presumably falling within their first-aid role the function of Defibrillator Operator. I mention this simply as a means to emphasise my previous assertion that the Fire Warden role is exceptionally important and should not be diluted by over burdening the individual who has kindly volunteered their services to aid the employer in administering their legal obligations.
Having referred to a number of strategies that may make a substantial difference to the outcome of your evacuation scenario, I would now like to refer to something I alluded to earlier at the beginning of this article. You may have noticed my attempt at humour with the strap line “Who’s Peeping”. Well, it’s interesting that a considerable number of employees are now carrying out Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPS) on behalf of their Disabled Employees. Whilst these PEEPS are being comprehensively compiled in collaboration with the individual, it would appear from my research that they are not being disseminated to those that require the information; presumably due to concern over breaching confidentiality legislation. As the PEEP is written on the basis of not disclosing personal information, there is no reason why those such as Evacuation Chair Operators shouldn’t have access to them. The fact that the person has MS is not relevant to the provision of the PEEP. Indeed this may be classed as being highly personal. The relevant factors of the PEEP should be to inform the person for whom the PEEP is written of their responsibilities to cooperate; to indicate the actions that will provide for their escape; to establish what actions are required of the individual based upon their level of dependency; and to provide appropriate information to all concerned parties to enable them to carry out their duties in a time conscious manner. The pro-active nature of the peep will negate the types of concern that I get asked about on a very frequent basis such as—
- Can my wheelchair users be accommodated with Emergency Evacuation Chairs?
- How might my staff transfer the wheelchair user into an Emergency assistive Device?
- How do I establish if the disabled employee is able to use such a device?
- What do I do if they state they don’t wish to be evacuated by using Evacuation devices?
All very simple questions that wouldn’t want to be addressed during the real event where the fire time-line is being eaten into by every deliberation.
Published July 2016
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