Fire Evacuation: Developing Situational Awareness

September 23, 2014

Fire Alarm Pull Station

The fire alarm sounds! What do I do? Well, first of all, it depends on where I am when the alarm sounds. If I am in a hotel and the alarm sounds in the middle of the night, my job is to evacuate via one of the routes I have previously scoped out. Every time I check into a hotel room, I scope out the evacuation routes. Yes, I am one of those guys who will ask the front desk associate where the stairs exit and I will many times walk the stairs to see exactly where they exit. If you have never done this, try it sometime. You may be surprised the response the front desk agent associate offers – and where you end up after walking the stairs, especially in an old hotel. In one hotel attended for a group meeting, a group of us walked the stairs and found ourselves in the basement, adjacent to the door of the main kitchen, and nowhere near an outside exit. The building was built prior to current-day life safety codes and is grandfathered in by the municipality. The lesson – don’t be surprised by the unexpected.

How about a theater or restaurant? I hope you scope out the exits when you go in – I do. So do many of my friends. It seems safety professionals and firefighters do this automatically – not a conscious effort, but a conditioned response to entering new surroundings. It is maintaining situational awareness. Emergency responders learn to do a quick size-up when entering a situation, and this provides a basis for future plan of action in the event of an emergency. The clues and cues noted during the initial size-up will help if an emergency does arise.

Based upon the initial size-up, clues, and cues, the experienced person will subconsciously anticipate what might happen in the next few minutes, hour, or next “period” of time. This level of situational awareness takes a long time to achieve – years of experience and repetitive assessments.

Many people do have such a sense of situational awareness in some areas of their life, but perhaps not other areas. For example, a new teenage automobile driver does not have the same situational awareness on the road as their parents, and must learn through experience and (hopefully) continued driver safety awareness and education. Auto insurance companies recognize this and respond with increased premiums for those under 25 years of age. To compound this lack of situational awareness, a newly licensed teen driver may not even realize or accept their lack of competence. They are not yet able to anticipate actions, reactions, and situations to which they may be forced to respond within the next few seconds. After a few close calls, a few surprising incidents, a few minor fender benders, they reach a realization that they have more to learn. This level of consciousness is the next step in becoming a good driver who can anticipate possible actions of others on the road. Eventually, after several years of practice, a level of unconscious situational awareness developes, and we can drive as if we are in “auto-pilot” mode. This is a state where we absorb clues and cues, process the information, and respond without so much as a conscious thought. Such as hitting brakes and swerving to avoid a collision.

This same development of situational awareness can also be applied to how we respond to a fire emergency. Transferring this situational awareness to a fire condition is not as easy as one might think. Most people do not respond to fires on a daily basis. Most people think they know what to do and will do the right thing in a fire emergency. Unfortunately, we do not always understand our shortcomings. Our lack of practice, knowledge, and awareness may lead to disastrous consequences.

Our place of business – where we work – where we spend almost a quarter of our working life, should be familiar territory. We enter our workplace as a matter of habit. Taking the same elevator to and from our floor, entering and leaving through the same doorway, taking lunch at the same cafeteria, and following the same route. We can become numb to our surroundings. We can go into “auto-pilot” mode. The “auto-pilot” mode should not be relied upon during an emergency. Our normal exit may be blocked and we may need to escape though an alternate exit at the other end of the building. If we do not possess a situational awareness of our surroundings, we may become confused, lost, and unaware of the appropriate response or action.

As managers and safety professionals, we must ensure that every employee is trained and educated in the proper course of action to take in the event of an emergency. The size of your workplace, the hazardous operations conducted, and hazardous materials handled should be part of your employee training. Every employee should understand the hazards which may create an emergency and know what actions they should take in the event an emergency arises. Every employee should understand the function and elements of your emergency action plan. They should understand the hazards, potential emergencies, emergency shutdown procedures, procedures for reporting an emergency, and activating the alarm system. Hazard communication is very important to educate employees in hazards, flammable liquids, toxic chemicals, radioactive sources, or other special hazards.

Evacuation plans should be practiced regularly. I prefer more than annual drills. A year is a long time to wait between training sessions. Training and educational sessions should be provided for all new employees; whenever an employee changes job tasks or departments; when to process changes or new hazards are introduced; when there is a change which alters the floor plan or evacuation routes; when the emergency response plan changes; and whenever management deems the time is appropriate to conduct an unscheduled drill. Encourage employees to develop a situational awareness mentality. Every employee should take a few seconds before every task to review and evaluate the hazards and anticipate undesired outcomes. After a while, every employee will begin to develop a situational awareness for their work tasks and work sites.

Emergencies happen. It is my opinion that every manager and every employee are responsible for the proper actions and response to prevent a catastrophe. Developing a comprehensive emergency action plan that deals with all types of issues specific to a work site is not difficult, expensive, or burdensome. Management and employees should come together to help safeguard each others’ safety and well being. Evacuation is only one part of an effective emergency response program.

CSB Warning Against Use of Methanol During Laboratory and Classroom Combustion Demonstrations

September 15, 2014
 View of "fire tornado" demonstration - Photo CSB

View of “fire tornado” demonstration – Photo CSB

On September 3, 2014, another tragic accident during a science demonstration. A flash fire injured nine people – eight of them children – who were viewing a science demonstration. They were transported to the hospital for evaluation of burn injuries, and one child with more serious burns was admitted to the hospital for treatment.

Concerns have also been raised by other entities, such as the Committee on Chemical Safety of the American Chemical Society (ACS). There is a general call for schools and teachers to immediately end all “rainbow” demonstrations involving methanol or other flammable solvents on open benches. Using flammable liquids in improperly controlled situations may lead to catastrophic results. ACS safety experts advise, “The ‘Rainbow’ demonstration performed on an open bench using a flammable solvent is a high risk operation.” There are well-known safer alternatives to the rainbow demonstration where no methanol is used, only wooden sticks soaked in chemical salts dissolved in water.

You may view a compelling video ” After the Rainbow” at

Are these demonstrations being conducted in your local schools and museums?

Statement of CSB Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso Warning Against Use of Methanol During Laboratory and Classroom Combustion Demonstrations, in the Wake of Reno, Nevada, Museum Fire can be found at

The Great Fire of London

September 1, 2014

The Great Fire of LondonSunday, 2 September to Wednesday, 5 September 1666

Pat a cake, Pat a cake, baker’s man

Bake me a cake as fast as you can;

Pat it and prick it and mark it with a ‘B’,

And put it in the oven for Baby and me.

 A nursery rhyme with origins referencing the Great Fire of London.

At that time, bakeries were viewed as great fire risks. The Great Fire of London is believed to have started in a Baker’s shop on Pudding Lane. Only a short distance from the wharves of London, Pudding Lane was reportedly amid some of the most unsavory parts of the city. The shop and dwelling of Farynor (aka Thomas Farrinor), King Charles I’s baker was on Pudding Lane 10 doors from Thames Street. Flames reportedly broke out from Farynor’s ovens between one and two o’clock in the morning. Farynor, his wife and daughter escaped their hose through a garret window, his man followed, but his maidservant became the first fatality of the fire.

The city was at that time a “walled city” which was designed in the feudal concept for defense. Mediaeval construction was the style of the time. Shakespeare had died a mere 50 year prior. Land was a premium commodity, and houses were nestled in one upon the next. Densely packed narrow houses, timber framed of varied heights with red tiled roofs. Houses treated with pitch to preserve the wood frames. Factories interspersed among the dwellings, getting workers from communities within walking distance. Factories spewing smoke from stacks of furnaces – the heart of soap making, dying, drying, and brewers. Pudding Lane was one of the tightest streets in the city, with only a cart width of space in some tighter areas.

Firefighting in the 1600’s was nothing like today. Houses were built with iron rings near the rooftop for ropes to be affixed and hooks on long poles to grab. The wall of the offending house – or that of a house to be used as a fire break was pulled down by teams of men. Squirts, long, large syringes filled with water by drawing the plunger, then pushing the plunger to expel the water under pressure were the fire extinguishers of the day. Two men would hold the syringe while a third pressed the plunger. Cisterns on wheeled carts would be wheeled to the fire to give a quick means of refilling the squirts. Wood pipes were drilled into to provide a cistern of water along the street. 17th century firefighting was no match for the ravages which fell upon the city.

In the end, the fire consumed 13,200 houses which housed approximately 70,000 of London’s 80,000 citizens. 87 parish churches, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, and most of the buildings of the City authorities were consumed.

The city was rebuilt. Several lent ideas, including Sir Christopher Wren, Captain Valentine Knight, and John Evelyn. During the rebuilding, occupants dispersed to wherever they could find an abode.

The Great Fire of London is not unique among fire history. It is an item of history amid many other cities which burned. The Great Fire of London will continue to remain in the forefront of fire history.

The Monument stands at the junction of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill in the City of London.

The Monument stands at the junction of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill in the City of London.

Visit to the Monument. Standing 202 feet high, the Monument is the tallest isolated stone column in the world.

Stairs going up to the top of the Monument to the Great Fire of London

Stairs going up to the top of the Monument to the Great Fire of London

The monument was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke and constructed with Portland stone in 1671-7. The simple Doric column is topped by a flaming urn of copper gilded with two layers of gold leaf to symbolize the Great Fire. I am privileged to have climbed the 311 steps to the balcony at the top.


Bell, Walter George. The Great Fire of London. London: Bracken, 1994. Print.

“Great Fire of London.” New World Encyclopedia. New World Encyclopedia, 10 Jan. 2014. Web. 01 Sept. 2014. <;.

Photo – Detail of the Great Fire of London by an unknown painter, depicting the fire as it would have appeared on the evening of Tuesday, 4 September 1666 from a boat in the vicinity of Tower Wharf. The Tower of London is on the right and London Bridge on the left, with St. Paul’s Cathedral in the distance, surrounded by the tallest flames. – Wikipedia (Public Domain)