Fire Management Trends: The Necessary Spark

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By Jillian Ruffino

Published in the July 2007 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

The Necessary Spark

On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City took the lives of 146 garment workers. It was the largest industrial disaster in the city’s history and provided the impetus for the formation of fire codes for commercial facilities. Over 30 years later, these codes were re-evaluated after a fire at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston, MA killed 492 people. The 1977 Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Southgate, KY (with a death toll of 165) brought devastation, because club owners neglected to heed these important guidelines.

There are few circumstances that can strike fear in the heart of a facility manager quite like a fire. It is imperative to ensure that fire safety is taken seriously and codes are followed strictly.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), there were 50 fire related deaths and 1,500 injuries in 2005 in nonresidential structures. These numbers are significantly lower than in years past, mostly due to closer adherence to fire codes.

There is one factor, however, facility managers cannot control: the behavior of occupants during a fire. Typical reactions, such as failure to exit the building, may exacerbate already dangerous situations. Free will cannot be controlled, but it can be possible to manage if it is understood.

Managing Human Behavior 

Why would occupants fail to exit a facility during a fire emergency? It may seem as though fleeing would be an instinctive and natural reaction in a threatening situation. This often proves not to be the case in commercial facilities.

Many people, for example, may not be aware a fire is occurring. Chris Jelenewicz, P.E., program manager for the Society of Fire Protection Engineers in Bethesda, MA, explains, “People don’t have enough information when there is a fire. When they hear a fire alarm they might not even know what it means, especially if it is not the building they are normally in.”

Jelenewicz cites one study in which the standard fire alarm signal was played. Unfortunately, many of the study participants could not identify the sound. He recommends changing to voice alarms. With these systems, a human voice is used to inform occupants of the emergency and outline recommended evacuation procedures.

Another issue cited by this expert is false alarms. “Sometimes people do not have confidence in their fire alarm systems, especially when they are in a building with a lot of false alarms. When there is a real fire, they might not know it.”

There are other factors that prevent rapid egress. Jake Pauls of Jake Pauls Consulting Services in Silver Spring, MD says, “People will gather their belongings, talk to colleagues, and try to figure out what is happening and what it means for them. They’re not going to act like automatons; there is always a delay.”

People also react differently to fire in commercial buildings than they do in their homes. According to Jelenewicz, “People are going to investigate if they think there is a fire in their home. In a commercial facility, they will rely on the building’s staff to investigate the fire or tell them when it is okay to leave or not.”

During the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, this aspect of human behavior turned deadly. At the time of the fire, a comedy act was in progress. Until a teenage busboy warned the audience, many believed the smoke was part of the show.

Jelenewicz claims, “People act differently depending on their position and responsibility in the building.” For this reason, it is important to assign roles to regular occupants. Visitors will follow a leader.

Another big issue during a fire evacuation is that people have a tendency to try to exit the building through the entrance they used to come in. This has been a contributing factor toward increased fatality rates in nearly every major fire emergency on record. “People may not be aware of other possible exit locations,” explains Daniel Picard, director of product technologies and regulatory affairs, ASSA ABLOY, architectural hardware group, headquartered in New Haven, CT. “This can create bottlenecks and dangerous crowding.”

Picard points out another problem: “When there is a fire, the smoke typically builds up at the ceiling. Exit signs are usually located above the doors (many, but not all codes require this), and they become obscured by the smoke.”

It may be advisable to implement a system in which the exits can be found even when smoke is blocking them or the electricity is no longer working. Picard recommends the LiteGuide family of products. “LiteGuide PL,” for example, “is a photo luminescent product. It absorbs fluorescent lighting. Once the light source is cut, the product will begin to glow.” This may help guide people toward the most efficient exit.

Coming Soon 

The Life Safety Code, a set of standards created by the National Fire Protection Association to address fire safety, is revised every four years. A new edition of the Life Safety Code will be available next year.

Among other changes, it should include a section on selective evacuation, especially for high-rise buildings. According to Pauls, “Facility managers want to make sure the most affected area is evacuated first. When evacuating the whole building, it may be best to start at the top and work down. People from the top take the longest to get down and may need to rest on the way.”

There is no building code to predict or move human behavior. Much of what can be done to help direct building occupants away from fire and into safety may seem like common sense, but it isn’t always intuitive. Managers must never forget the human element when creating evacuation procedures.

This article was based on interviews with Jelenewicz, Pauls, and Picard.

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