Irrespective of if your work place is a conventional office, kitchen, or factory, fire safety is something every business must prioritize. It’s estimated that up to 80,000 serious workplace fires occur every year in the United States, taking the lives of approximately 200 workers and injuring another 5,000. However, the truth still remains that a vast majority of their occurrence can be easily avoided.

When a fire threatens your employees and business, chaos and confusion can reign. Construction fires can move quickly and workers are forced to do what they can to survive. Sometimes, fires can come from outside the building. For instance, wildfires can be a threat if they jump containment efforts or change direction. Damage to physical structures can run into the millions.

A business fire evacuation plan should be more than just a strategy for exiting the office during an emergency. It goes a long way to show that your company cares about the welfare of its employee and that the safety of your employees is very important to you. The importance of a fire evacuation plan is not limited only to the safety of employees. Without a fire evacuation plan, businesses will also suffer the backlash of property and reputational damages, legal ramifications, and loss of infrastructure. Yet, with the many consequences of not having a fire evacuation plan, the truth still remains that there are a lot of companies who do not have a well-established emergency plan, thereby putting their workers and customers at risk. In this day and age where industries are losing millions due to fire incidents, natural calamities, and unrest, emergency management should be prioritized. Businesses must take an active role in ensuring that they are prepared to tackle any disaster or emergency that could potentially damage their resources.

Businesses cannot operate without facilities, infrastructures, and human resources. When these are damaged or lost due to emergencies and other disasters, operations can come to a screeching halt. The damages add up – damages to reputation, loss of trust from investors, and brand devaluation. Depending on the size of the facility and extent of the damage, it may take months or even years for the business to recover.

A workplace on fire can be quite dangerous, and the threat is increased by the resultant panic and chaos that can come with being unprepared. The best way to prevent this from happening is to have a detailed and rehearsed fire evacuation plan.

A fire safety plan helps prevent injury, saves lives, and it might also help protect your property. If you don’t already have one, it’s time to take action. Here is how you can prepare a fire evacuation and safety plan for your business:

1. Consult your local fire official

Before you do anything, you should first schedule a meeting with a local fire official to find out exactly which types of fire alarm and sprinkler systems city or county codes require you to put in place. The location where your business operates from, the type of industry you are in, size of your office et al. can go a long way to affect your choice of fire protection equipment, so find out exactly what you need before you invest.

2. Imagine Various Scenarios

When you want to prepare a fire evacuation plan for your business, you should start by asking some basic questions to gain more insight on the things that constitute a primary threat to your business in the case of a fire.

  • Where might fires break out?

According to the research that was carried out by The National Fire Protection Association between the five year periods of 2007 and 2011, an average of 3,340 fires occurred in office properties per year. Most of those fires were caused by cooking equipment, intentional acts, and electrical malfunctions. Another research by the United States Fire Administration confirmed that cooking was the leading cause of nonresidential building fires for the past 10 years.

  • How and why would they start?

You should take your time to investigate the potential reasons a fire would threaten your business. Does your office have a kitchen? Does your office have portable space heaters or personal fridges? Are there plumbing lines that might leak into electrical wiring? Are there overloaded outlets or outdated surge protectors? Is your office in a location that is usually threatened by wildfires during the summer? Make sure you understand the threats and how they might find their way to your business.

Due to the fact that cooking fires are the number one reason for fires in the workplace, you should lay down some rules in your business about the use of microwaves and other office cooking appliances. You should state clearly to your workers that hot plates, in-office microwaves, and other cooking appliances are not allowed in the work place.

In order to thoroughly inspect your business for hazards, you can ask for the help of your local fire marshal. In most cities, they offer an inspection for little money or for free. And, in many cities, the inspection is already a requirement. A quick Google search of “fire safety inspection” should bring up the local departments that can help.

3. Establish roles and responsibilities

If a fire outbreak should occur in your workplace, it is only natural that your employees will look up to their leaders for reassurance and guidance. Create a clear chain of command that states who has the authority to order an evacuation.

Here are the main roles you should consider creating as part of your fire evacuation plan:

  • Chief fire warden: This employee should be tasked with the overall responsibility for a fire event, including planning and preparation.
  • Assistant fire warden: This employee should be tasked with using the mass alert system to alert employees, call the fire department, and gather reports.
  • Route guides: Route guides play an important role in making sure that routes are clear and evacuation is orderly and calm.
  • Fire extinguishers: these employee can help to fight the fire with the various extinguishers that are in the workplace. However, you should note that you should never fight a fire that has left its source of origin. If you can’t bring a fire under control in 30 seconds, then stop, close the door, and escape to safety.
  • Floor monitors: this employee should be the last person that leaves the workplace after making sure the area is clear.

4. Develop a communication plan

When you are practicing your fire drills, you should put someone in charge (like the assistant fire warden) who will be tasked with disseminating information to employees, customers, news media, and where applicable, other entities such as the community, organizational management, suppliers, transportation partners and government officials.

The person for this role should be carefully selected. They should be reliable, present, and above all, they should be able to react quickly. You should also train a back-up as this is a critical position. As soon as you have picked someone to fill this position, you should then provide them with a redundant, multi-channel communication system. Reacting to a fire can be quite disorderly. People may not have access to their normal channels of communication, they may forget to check, and networks could fail. Being able to communicate through email, phone, text, and mobile app will ensure your communication gets the broadest distribution possible. Once that tool is in place, your communications team will need to let the appropriate stakeholders know how the situation impacts the business, what actions they should take, next steps and more.

5. Map out routes clearly

A good fire evacuation plan for your business should have primary and secondary escape routes. There should be clear signs in the work place indicating the various exit routes. If the office is large in size, then you should make multiple maps and post in and around the office so that everyone will know where to go through in case of an emergency.

6. Designate an assembly area for employees to gather

You should designate an area that your employees should gather in after they have left the building. The assistant fire warden should be at the assembly area collecting a head count and providing updates. Make sure the escape routes and the assembly area can accommodate the expected number of employees who will be evacuating. You should also make sure that the assembly point is far enough away from the building that no one be put in danger by heat, falling debris, or shattering glass.

7. Inspect your tools regularly

Fires do not happen very often, and as such, it is not unusual for people to have some firefighting tools that are in a state of disrepair.

The National Fire Protection Association recommends refilling reusable fire extinguishers every 10 years and replace disposable ones every 12 years. You should also make sure that the following as up to date;

  • Fire alarms
  • Emergency lighting
  • Fire doors (if applicable)
  • Escape ladders (if applicable)

8. Practice fire drills

Children in schools are quite familiar with fire drills because they practice it regularly, sometimes monthly. The reason behind this is that by regularly rehearsing fire drills, the kids will get used to it and will be less confused when an actual fire occurs. A safe outcome is more likely to occur with calm students who know what to do in the event of a fire. Adults can also benefit from this too.

Key fire evacuation leaders should meet quarterly and plan for an annual or semi-annual full rehearsal of the company fire evacuation plan. Here is a detailed guide on how to conduct a fire drill at work.

Make sure that you’re asking staff these questions:

What’s the safest and most direct route out of the building from every single point inside?

What’s the backup plan in case the usual route is impassible?

Who is your fire safety team leader?

Additionally you can include a mini-fire evacuation drill as part of a new employee’s onboarding process.

9. Take fire drills seriously

According to the Department of Occupational Health and Safety, the major problem with fire drills is that most adults don’t tend to take them seriously, most especially when they are planned ahead of time.

You can spice things up by adopting a random drill. To really test employees, set up blocks in the usual paths to see whether they know their alternatives.

10. Follow-up and reporting

Carrying out surveys is a very good way of gathering status updates from your employees. The assistant fire marshal in your business can just send out a survey asking for a status update and monitor responses in real time to see who’s safe. In addition, the assistant fire marshal can see who hasn’t responded, and direct resources to assist those in need.

One of the major challenges you may encounter will be the employees that are not in the office. There may be someone who is sick or on vacation. These people will not be at the rally point and as such you wonder if they made it out of the office or not. As such you should include response options such as “I’m not in the office today” in your surveys to account for this and clarify everyone’s situation.

11. Unique work situations

Incorporate contractors and temporary workers in your plan. In addition, even though remote workers will not be directly affected by a fire, but they need to know what is going on with the business and their co-workers.

Your fire evacuation plan must also include people who are disabled or will need assistance in order to evacuate safely.

12. Protection of assets

If there are valuable assets in your office that may be too heavy to move in the event of a fire, then you should consider putting them in a fire proof room or safe.

If your business does not have a redundant storage for sensitive data, then you should get one. Even very small businesses can take advantage of economic cloud storage.

Other Fire Evacuation and Safety Tips for Your Business

  1. Inspect Smoke Detectors: having smoke detectors in your office is a must. However, you should test them from time to time (preferably on a monthly basis) and also check their batteries. In the event of a power outage, the battery backup will keep them working. You should also get a CO2 detector.

If you are in doubt of the capability of your smoke detectors, you should install more detectors. If you have been using a set for a long time, you should replace them with newer, more effective models so as to ensure that the working environment will be lot safer.

2. Test Fire Extinguishers: most offices go very long periods without having to use a fire extinguisher. It just sits on the wall and gathers dust. What you may not know is that these fire extinguishers can actually expire and as such they may fail you when you need them most. This is why you have to test them from time to time. First, check the seals. There’s a tamper-evident seal near the handle, and it should be unbroken. Next, check the pressure. There’s a gauge (also located near the handle), and it indicates whether the pressure is good or too low. And finally, test the extinguisher if yours has a test button. Press it, and check the pressure reading on the dial.

If you find out that any fire extinguisher has expired, you should replace it immediately.

In addition, train all employees on how to safely and properly use a fire extinguisher.

3. Fire doors: fire doors are installed with the aim to prevent the spread of flame and smoke and if they are left open, this aim can be defeated. Regularly inspect the fire doors in your facility to ensure that they’re functioning properly and free from obstruction, and be sure that they’re never propped open with doorstops, wedges, or other objects.

4. Have a strict policy against employee or company vehicles parking or idling in fire lanes; these need to be kept clear at all times for fire trucks, ambulances and police cars.

5. Keep combustible chemicals and materials a minimum of 3 feet away from heat sources.

6. Ensure that the sprinklers in your offer are free from any obstruction so that the water can flow properly when it is needed. Clearance requirements generally range between 18 and 24 inches, but may differ depending on where your business is located and as such you should check with the local authorities for the specific requirements in your area.

In conclusion, having a fire evacuation plan for your business will go a long way to ensure that your employees and business assets are protected. People don’t think about fire safety every day. With good equipment and an equally good plan, you don’t have to. The key is making your business as safe as it can be, and then maintaining that safety through inspections and drills.

Ajaero Tony Martins