Evacuation planning is a central tenet of safety strategy for commercial buildings and any owner or manager who underestimates this responsibility is placing people, assets and everyday operations at greater risk. The safety of people should always be the top priority of such strategies but the financial, commercial and legal implications of failing to properly prepare are worthy of consideration.
In 2012, the cost of commercial fire damage in the UK was circa £620m, according to the Association of British Insurers. There is also strong evidence from the US that over a third of businesses never resume operations after a major fire – losing orders, contracts, and key employees, which results in lost jobs and services to the community.
Neglecting the safety of the people in the building that an owner or manager is responsible for can lead to reputational damage. Reputation is an intangible and priceless asset that when damaged, can have a negative impact on an organisation’s shareholders, profitability, market share and even its bottom line.
The growing and increasingly diverse risks faced by those responsible for commercial buildings make it more important than ever to have a robust evacuation strategy in place. It is both a legal and a moral obligation for the managers and owners of buildings to uphold, which not only means having the right systems in place, but also ensuring they are properly maintained so that, if the worst happens, they switch into action.
The completion and ongoing review of risk assessments is crucial in identifying and dealing with risk factors. The specific risks identified from undertaking a detailed fire risk assessment will vary from building to building, as every building has a different construction, layout and processes. For instance, the risks in an office building will somewhat vary to those in a hotel or a sports arena. The risk analysis must also consider what type of occupants are likely to be present in the building – are they employees that come in every day, or guests visiting for one day only? Are certain occupants particularly vulnerable? Considering the proportion of people who have a limiting long-term illness, impairment or disability, this should always be included in the risk assessment.
Specific risk scenarios to consider include buildings that are open to the general public. When a building is filled with the same occupants on a regular basis, it is likely those occupants will be part of the fire alarms weekly test and possibly an evacuation drill. However, in buildings where there is a large proportion of people who are not familiar with their surroundings, such as a sports arena, hotel, shopping centre or transport hub, an evacuation may be delayed or even ignored due to inaction by those visiting occupants. These are particularly important considerations in an increasingly urbanised world where high-rise buildings, large leisure facilities and multi-purpose buildings are becoming more common.
Bells and sirens can be mistaken as general background noise that don’t grab occupants’ attention or compel them to act. Voice Alarm (VA) systems are the quickest way to evacuate the public and staff from a building. In the UK, VA systems are recommended for all public buildings and multi-storey buildings over four floors. Following fire detection, automated messages control the flow of people in stairways and corridors allowing an orderly evacuation without panic. These messages can be supplemented by spoken messages from the fire service or management suite confirming the need to leave the building.
The potential presence of people with disabilities or limited mobility should also be borne in mind. It’s important to note that not all people with disabilities need assisted evacuation. On the other hand, not all disabilities are visible, and people with ‘hidden impairments’ such as visual or hearing impairments may also need assistance. This group is particularly vulnerable if they are alone at the time of an evacuation.
People with physical disabilities will need to reach emergency exits as quickly as possible and this might necessitate specific forms of assistance. Staircases present difficulties to those with physical disabilities. If lifts are automatically deactivated when an emergency alarm is sounded – as is the case in many modern buildings – contingencies need to be considered.
In buildings with many floors it might be necessary to create designated refuge areas with two-way communication systems, whereby trapped occupants on an upper floor can notify fire and rescue personnel on the ground floor of their whereabouts.
Exit routes should be made apparent by illuminated signage and emergency lighting, which are designed to help occupants of commercial and industrial buildings find their way out in the event of power being cut. Contingencies must also be made for people with impaired eyesight, particularly if there’s a possibility of them being unaccompanied in a building at the time when an evacuation procedure is activated.
For building occupants with hearing impairments, the most common solutions are flashing beacons known as VADs (Visual Alarm Devices) or tactile devices such as pagers and vibrating pillows or beds. Each of these technologies has its advantages and weaknesses, which must be evaluated against the perceived risk. In Europe, the requirements for VADs are set out in the EN54-23 standard introduced in 2014.
One of the key considerations around emergency lighting is that increased illumination is required in areas that are designated as high-risk task areas, where staff or third parties are exposed to specific hazards. These enable safer movement of people in the event of a blackout. Typical high-risk task areas include kitchens, first aid rooms, treatment rooms, refuges, plant rooms, switch rooms, winding facilities for lifts, fire safety equipment and reception areas.
Industrial buildings present additional risks as they contain machinery and other equipment that not only block occupants’ escape routes, but increase the speed that a fire spreads. To mitigate these risks, an appropriate risk assessment compensating for the potential hazards is extremely important. In the event of a power failure, some machines may continue to function and be a danger to employees when exiting the building. In this instance, a product with a much higher level of emergency lighting than the standard solution can help.
The common requirements for all fire detection, notification and emergency lighting systems are that they should be compliant with regulations; applicable to the specific risks identified; easy to operate, test and maintain; and reliable.
Designing and installing life safety systems for a building must always be done through a partnership with one or more appointed competent people. If you do not have this competence yourself, you must therefore appoint fully qualified engineers who will use their expertise to meet the specific requirements of your project.
Maintaining life safety in the event of an emergency isn’t just about having the right systems in place, but ensuring they are properly maintained so that, if the worst happens, they can be relied upon.
In the case of a fire hazard, fire systems combine detection and notification in a single control panel that, being ‘addressable’, indicate the location where the hazard was detected. This helps the appointed occupants to guide others in the right direction towards safety, as well as reduce the time taken by fire services to locate and tackle the potential fire. These systems are highly effective but they are not ‘fit and forget’ solutions. They require regular testing and maintenance, which should be properly recorded and logged.
The latest monitoring systems for emergency lighting should also be considered. These are intended to eradicate the associated costs and time constraints associated with manual maintenance checks.
While fire remains the most widely-perceived risk to commercial buildings, risks are becoming more diverse, with the threat of terrorism, crime and civil unrest all looming large.
As a result, both technology solutions and regulatory requirements are likely to evolve considerably in the years to come.
For example, the current UK version of the code of practice for emergency lighting is being reviewed. Included in this review is the safety of the occupants that are not evacuated in a lighting supply failure, such as care homes and hotels. These are now classified as ‘stay put’ occupants and in some cases they will need defended locations.
In terms of technology, mass notification systems could soon become more widespread in parts of Europe where there are increasingly large public sites such as sports arenas and university campuses.
As part of a wider move towards integrated smart city networks that monitor and optimise energy supply and demand across a city, buildings will use sensors and control systems to adapt to changing weather conditions and occupancy levels in real-time. The connected city and the power of data should mean better information for threat analysis and response. The devices we all increasingly carry around, such as smartphones and wearables, link us in to this information flow and can offer guidance to direct us away from the hazard threatening the safety in a building.
Another emerging trend is dynamic sign technology and routing control. In the event of an incident, this system will be able to indicate the best evacuation route, as well as block access to dangerous zones.
In a world that is constantly changing and evolving, the key to safeguarding occupants is proactivity. From updating the right evacuation product to suit the profile of a building, to ensuring proper maintenance of that bespoke product, it’s vital that building owners act rather than react.
For more information, go to www.eatonworksafe.com