Fire Evacuation: Developing Situational Awareness

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.

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