FM Frequency: Exit, Stage Right - Facility Executive Magazine - Creating Intelligent Buildings

FM Frequency Columnist Charles Carpenter is all about common sense, not stage directions, with this very practical advice on fire safety in facilities.
FM Frequency Columnist Charles Carpenter is all about common sense, not stage directions, with this very practical advice on fire safety in facilities.

FM Frequency: Exit, Stage Right

FM Frequency: Exit, Stage Right - Facility Executive Magazine - Creating Intelligent Buildings

By Charles Carpenter
Published in the June 2010 issue of Facility Executive

If you heard someone besides Snagglepuss say “exit, stage right,” would you know what to do? Does it mean to exit to the right side of the stage or to your right if you’re facing the audience? The answer might not seem important now; however, if safety was “stage right,” you might want to know.

Unfortunately, it seems that society takes the concept of exiting for granted. I would imagine that anyone can take a walk randomly into five “consumer” facilities and find at least one exit sign not functioning properly (or worse). While those who would notice might not mention it to the management, the worry should be with the ones who do not notice, since they will need to know the escape route in an emergency.

Things can get worse. While at my nephew’s Tae Kwon Do Tournament (not the worse part), I noticed an unilluminated exit sign that pointed the way out of the gymnasium. Deciding to see where “safety” was, I found that the doors were blocked by a rack full of shoes being sold by a vendor who seemed confused by the notion that someone would want to open those doors. In a facility that was unfamiliar to hundreds of people, one exit was already inaccessible.

Things do get worse. The Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island resulted in 100 lives lost, many of whom crowded around the narrow entrance despite the presence of three other exits. Given the thick smoke that was documented during the fire, even functioning egress signage might have been useless. As with retail environments, visitors to other types of businesses will not know how or where to exit, whether it is their first or 40th visit. Facility managers (fms) need to take note.

Problems are not limited to facilities that turn over their occupants every day. Office environments can have problems when messages or procedures do not reach the intended parties. During the 9/11 World Trade Center (WTC) tragedy, it was documented that people tried to escape the building by going up to the roof, as they did during the 1993 WTC bomb blast. But in 2001, those people found the doors to the roof locked. The change of procedure never made it to the tenants. There was ample documentation of safety issues that occurred in the WTC—dating all the way back to 1975, according to the Skyscraper Safety Campaign—however, proper implementation was always something to be desired.

Unfortunately, all the signs and devices in the world will not help fms if the target audience cannot hear the message, does not understand the message, or chooses to ignore it. In our multicultural society, the number of workers or visitors who do not claim English as their primary language means the best possible signs and labels may not be understood. Upper management sends the wrong message when it closes the doors during a fire alarm so a conference call can continue. But the biggest challenge may be the employee in the cubicle who simply does not hear the fire alarm because s/he is listening to tunes blasting away on the old iPod.

Chances are this column is preaching to the choir. Fms who take the time to read articles like this probably stay ahead of life safety issues. Still, here is a checklist:

  • Check the exit signs at your facility. Does it illuminate?  Does the battery backup work? Did a contractor leave it above the ceiling during a remodel? Have walls moved so many times that the exit signs point the wrong direction?
  • Modernize. Bulb out? Sign not working? LED bulbs are commonplace and can fit into the oldest of signs. Better yet, take a look at the next generation of egress lighting (Hint: is loaded with product ideas). You may find it’s easier to buy something new than to track down a part for current signs.
  • Invite your fire department in for an inspection. If you think you are lucky that your building has not been inspected, you have the wrong attitude. Fire inspectors will point out what is wrong, and typically, nudge you to get the small problems corrected.
  • Fire drills are not just for school children. Facilities should have annual fire drills—at least. These drills should be timed to see if the evacuation rate is acceptable and can even be observed by your fire department. It will also be a good time to see if the procedures for accounting people are working.
  • Take the stairs. Both in your building and elsewhere, the stairs will give you more than exercise. In your building, you may find something wrong. In someone else’s building, you will know how to get out alive so you will be around to read the next FM Frequency column.
  • Be your brother’s keeper. If you see something that doesn’t look right in another facility, don’t be afraid to point out the problem—and suggest how easy a resolution might be.


Carpenter is a facility manager in Austin, TX and has been in the profession since 1995.

For past FM Frequency columns, visit this link. To share some of your personal experiences in real time, com to FacilityBlog.

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