By Michael Sher: Planning for emergency situations in the workplace long before they occur is not only a best practice – it could be a life saver. This is especially true when dealing with a fire. Not only do fires account for approximately 3% of workplace fatalities each year, they cost organizations billions of dollars in property damage, lost productivity and higher insurance premiums.
Our specialty is helping organizations think through all the necessary steps for preparing for and responding to emergencies of all shapes and sizes. If you have the misfortune of dealing with a fire in your workplace, here are the most essential things you need to keep in mind.
Have an emergency action plan.
Fire preparedness is key and that means having an emergency action plan. Consider appointing a key employee (e.g., Head of Security) as your organization’s “fire marshall” to oversee enactment of the action plan. At a minimum, your plan should have a method for reporting a fire, an evacuation policy and procedure and emergency escape procedures and route assignments, such as floor plans, workplace maps, and safe or refuge areas. Your plan should also include a complete list of employees, including titles, departments, and contact information. Make sure to have first aid equipment and fire extinguishers in easily accessible locations. Depending on the nature of your business, you may want to consider having a back-up communications center and a secure off-site location to store essential records and legal documents.
Hold fire drills and fire extinguisher training.
Regular fire drills are important for familiarizing employees with your emergency action plan, including evacuation. Holding them monthly will help ensure the plan stays fresh in everyone’s mind. Training employees on how to use fire extinguishers appropriately is also key. Scarily, more than 50% of the people who operate a fire extinguisher do so incorrectly or dangerously, according to Fire & Safety Australia.
Sound the alarm and alert the authorities.
As soon as a blaze is discovered, your building’s fire alarm should be activated if it hasn’t been triggered automatically. Make sure that your designated “fire marshall” knows to dial 911 immediately.
Start evacuating. Protecting the health and safety of your employees should be any organization’s first priority. Facilitating a quick evacuation requires a clear chain of command. As soon as the fire alarm has sounded your “fire marshall” should tell all employees to stop what they’re doing and exit the building without stopping to collect any personal effects. Employees should use a predetermined escape route that allows them to gather a safe distance outside and away from the building. Make sure everyone knows elevators are off limits and to stay out of the way of responding emergency vehicles. Once fully evacuated, nobody should return to the building until it has been declared safe by emergency services
Accounting for all employees following an evacuation is a critical part of the plan. Confusion at the designated meeting point can lead to delays in rescuing anyone trapped in the building, or unnecessary and dangerous search-and-rescue operations. To ensure the fastest, most accurate accounting, assign your HR Leader or another key employee to conduct a head count once all employees have gathering at the meeting point. If anyone is suspected missing, make sure that emergency services personnel is notified right away. Under no circumstances should an employee re-enter the building to offer help. In addition, should employees have injuries or burns, an appropriately trained employee should administer first aid until professional medical help arrives.
Track the impact on business continuity.
Hopefully your emergency action plan will be executed smoothly and all employees will be evacuated safely and physical damage will be minimal. Fires can be huge disruptors to business continuity, so it’s important that this impact is tracked and reported. Have your CFO track all expenses and lost revenue related to the fire. Back up any resulting insurance claims with documentation and photos.
Compile a final report.
Once the smoke has cleared and business returns to normal, take the time to review the effectiveness of your emergency plan when put into action. This means looking at the actions that went well and where there was room for improvement. Consider surveying key leaders and employees about how prepared they felt and how smoothly they thought the response was. Include recommendations for future response and corrective actions, as needed.
Workplace fires can be a devastating blow to your organization’s most important assets. With approximately 6,000 office fires in the U.S. every year, fire safety and response is no laughing matter. The worst part is that fires can break out at any point, forcing your organization to evacuate when least expected. That is why advance preparedness is a “must-have.” Quite literally, your emergency action plan can mean the difference between life and death.
Michael Sher is president and founder of Groupdolists, a cross-platform SaaS solution to help teams on the front-lines responsible for safeguarding employees, facilities and assets. He has been building tools for the emergency and incident management markets since 2001, when he co-founded Send Word Now in New York City right after 9/11.