WEB EXCLUSIVE: Empower Occupants For Fire Safety

This Web Exclusive article is provided by Pete Duncanson, director of training and technical support for the ServiceMaster Clean business unit. He can be reached at (901) 597-7551 or at pduncanson@smclean.com.

Recent estimates suggest there are as many as 6,000 commercial fires a year in the United States, leaving offices decimated and peoples lives up in the air. As companies are filing billions of dollars in claims, they are also losing valuable production time, which cuts deeply into bottom lines.

Facility managers should bear in mind, fires can happen in an instant, and they spread even faster. Most causes of fires in the workplace include the following:

  1. Misuse of electrical equipment or electrical failure
  2. Placing combustible materials too close to heat sources (e.g., copiers, kitchen appliances, etc.)
  3. Careless smoking habits
  4. Improper storage of flammable materials
  5. Arson

But as in the home, there are simple preventative measures that if followed regularly, will greatly reduce the likelihood of a blaze in the workplace. These include:

  1. Never force three-pronged plugs into two-pronged outlets.
  2. Do not overload extensions and electrical outlets.
  3. Never use household-grade extension cords; instead, use heavy-duty cords with circuit breakers.
  4. Check and replace any electrical cords that have cracked insulation or broken connectors.
  5. Avoid “octopus” wiring.
  6. Don’t run extension cords across doorways or under rugs.
  7. Leave enough space around heaters and other equipment, including computers and copiers, to allow air to circulate freely.
  8. Keep combustible materials such as paper, magazines, texts, and oily rags away from appliances.
  9. Turn off or unplug appliances at the end of each day.
  10. Use large, no-tip ash trays in areas where smoking is allowed, and be sure tray contents are cold before disposing ashes into a wastebasket.
  11. Check regularly for smoldering cigarettes left on furniture.
  12. Store all flammable liquids in flame resistant containers.
  13. Pay close attention to security measures and report any vandalism or suspicious individuals to security personnel.
  14. Keep all doors and windows locked after business hours.

Informed Occupants?

What would occupants do if a fire were to break out in your facility? Are they familiar with the organization’s fire evacuation plan and any specific responsibilities they may have been assigned? Do the employees/occupants in your building meet regularly to review fire escape measures? Are they up to speed on fire prevention tactics? These are the very questions everyone in the workplace should be asking themselves in order to create the safest office environment possible.

A fire safety plan is an essential part of any workplace safety program. In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has mandated that all businesses have one in place and that it is adequately communicated to all employees. Facility managers should conspicuously post an abridged form of this plan throughout the workplace and be sure to distribute a full copy to all employees. Disabled employees must always be taken into account as well during the planning process. All employers should facilitate periodic fire drills using a working fire alarm.

As it is incumbent upon businesses to provide employees a roadmap to safety and a working fire alarm, employees must also take it upon themselves to be sufficiently prepared in case of a fire emergency. Workers should adopt the following preparedness steps in order to better ensure personal safety:

  1. Be aware of the number of doors and desks between their work stations and the nearest exit, as they may be required to leave the building in the dark.
  2. Become familiar with the building’s sprinkler system and smoke alarm layout.
  3. Learn the location of alternative exits from all work areas.
  4. Know where the nearest fire alarm is relative to their work station and understand how it operates.
  5. Post the fire department’s emergency phone number in a highly visible location near their desk.
  6. Make sure supervisors are aware of any disabilities that may hold employees up during an evacuation.

For high-rise evacuation, employees should do the following:

  1. Learn their building’s fire emergency plan and follow it during a blaze unless doing so puts them in harm’s way.
  2. Listen for special instructions given over the company’s public address system.
  3. If there is no fire in their area, they should retreat to the building’s safe zone or close all fire doors and stay put.
  4. If there is a fire in their area, they should retreat to lower floors using the stairs, and exit the building if possible. Once outdoors, NEVER GO BACK INTO THE BUILDING!
  5. If they have a mobile phone, they should keep it on their person and be sure to call the fire department if trapped.

While many of the procedures described above may seem common sense measures, it’s amazing how quickly decision making skills leave a person during stressful situations. That’s why it is imperative to review these steps inside and out and encourage co-workers to do the same on a regular basis.

Fire code requirements specify the number, size and, location of fire extinguishers for a facility. All employees should be trained in the handling and operation of these devices should the situation call for them. Keep in mind, it is never advisable to fight a fire on your own, unless it is small (e.g., size of a wastebasket) and you feel comfortable using the fire extinguisher.

One of the most important things for employees to learn is to treat every alarm as an emergency until the source of the warning has been determined. And once it is sounded, be sure to alert the local fire authorities. If it is later determined that it was a false alarm as a result of faulty equipment, be sure to contact 911 and relay that information. Also remember that it is critical to keep a cool head during an alarm. A calm demeanor sets an example for others and could just be the difference in whether everyone escapes unharmed.