A recent discussion with a Fire Prevention Inspector in Vancouver BC has caused me to reflect on my own experience with fire safety plans. This Inspector clearly stated that he “didn’t have time for fire safety plans”. Before my retirement from a municipal Fire Department as a Fire Prevention Inspector, I too, was very busy with all that was expected of the position. However, this man’s tone indicated that he didn’t place much worth on fire safety plans in the grand scheme of things. I found it unprofessional that a Fire Prevention Inspector would think such a thing, let alone say it in public.
It is acknowledged that back in the 1980′s and 90′s we may have thought that a Vancouver fire safety plan, once approved by the local fire service and received by building management, would be placed in a drawer and forgotten about. However, times change and it has been my experience that in the last few years fire safety plans were being given much more attention.
Anyone in business understands that a vital aspect of asset management in any operation is contingency planning or business continuity planning. This is to ensure the minimum disruption of operations following an accident or disaster. Building owners, managers and operators are responsible for their building(s) and the lives inside them. Unfortunately, owners, managers and operators too often have little knowledge of their legal responsibilities with regard to fire safety. In my opinion fire safety plans can help in rectifying this situation.
Section 2.8 “Emergency Planning” has been a part of the National Fire Code of Canada as well as the Provincial Fire Codes since their inception.
The primary objectives for a fire safety plan are:
• The emergency evacuation of building occupants.
• The control of fire hazards.
• The maintenance of fire protection equipment and systems.
A current and well practiced fire safety program will aid greatly in reducing loss of life and property due to unwanted fires. This is accomplished through a fire safety plan by raising awareness of fire hazards in and around one’s building, by ensuring the maintenance of vital safety systems and through staff training the provisions for the safety of occupants during an emergency. Remember the Fire Code is the minimum standard that was passed. In the interest of life and fire safety I would suggest that Surrey fire safety plans be generated for many more buildings than the Code currently calls for.
Let us ask ourselves why we joined the fire department or became involved in fire protection in the first place?
I’m not too sure what today’s answer is but when I joined the fire department back in the 1970′s the common answer was, ‘to fight fires and save lives’. With all due respect and taking nothing away from front line firefighters, there is more today to fighting fires than putting the wet stuff on the red stuff.
Humans have a strong desire to be in control of events, and this feeling of being in control can be quite rewarding; although this sense of control is often an illusion, as every day we enter into a world of events beyond our control. Adding to this we are also task oriented, and when engaged in activities we are often unwilling to interrupt them.
For the general public ambiguous evidence that there is a fire is, more often than not, insufficient reason for people to interrupt their activities. To the public a fire alarm signal may be by itself ambiguous; it does not indicate the location or severity of a fire, or even if a fire actually exists. The experience of most people mitigates their fear that there is really any danger at all. Sadly, many assume that the alarm is only a surprise fire drill or another malfunction of the alarm system.
The decisions a person makes during a fire incident are further associated with their situational awareness; or their perception of risk and their uncertainty of what to do.
During a fire incident occupants face numerous questions:
• Should I ignore or respond to the fire alarm of other indicators?
• Should I investigate or evacuate?
• Should I search for others?
• Is there time enough to dress, to finish shopping, to finish my telephone conversation, to finish this memo, to tweet about it, etc.? (We are task oriented). Unfortunately, people often underestimate how rapidly a fire and smoke can spread.
People instinctively want to delay responding to threatening situations until the danger is well understood. More than likely the reason for this is to avoid the associated anxiety.
Maybe it’s a case of urban-overload, where people are constantly being bombarded with stimulation that they keep to themselves in order to avoid being overloaded by it. There are many everyday situations in which we rely on other people to help us define what’s going on. This is called “informational social influence”. This is where one conforms to another’s interpretation of an ambiguous situation in the belief that their interpretation is more correct that ours. When we are unsure of the correct response, the appropriate behavior, or the right idea, we are most open to the influence from others. “I don’t want to look stupid; no one else seems to pay much attention to the alarm so it must be nothing important. I’ll just carry on with what I’m doing”. This is why approved emergency procedures and strained staff must be present.
When they do decide to exit, people will use familiar egress routes. This usually means that if someone came in through a main entrance they will tend to want to exit through the same entrance; they know where it is, they know where they parked, etc. However, time is of the essence, people may not have adequate time to traverse a large structure and exit where they came in. Staff trained in approved emergency procedures can play a vital role in the life safety of building occupants by ushering them promptly to the nearest safe exit. This is also where well placed directional exit signage is of value.
In this post 9/11 world we live in I believe that a building’s fire safety plan should actually evolve into an Emergency Action Plan (EAP). The EAP will address a number of potential emergencies, most of which the local fire department will be called to respond to. These could include small accidents, building fires, citywide disasters, power outages, hazardous materials spills, bomb threats, civil disturbances or earth quakes and wind storms. These incidents may impact the health and safety of people in the area as well as the first responders.
Fire departments may not initially be in favor of working with Emergency Actions Plans as a replacement for Vancouver Fire Safety Plans. However, I believe that this is the only logical way to proceed and will assist the fire service to maintain a certain amount of control with regard to incidents to which they respond. Consider it as ‘pre-response damage limitation’. The better prepared and trained the staff at the facility you’re responding to, the easier your job will be.
I realize that as humans we have certain instincts to protect our own territory (This is my sandbox and you can’t play.) However, once we get past any instinctual territorial imperatives and learn to work together, we will all live in a safer and more productive world.