The Fire Department viewpoint on building evacuation


The record of fires in high-rise buildings, with resultant fatalities and heavy financial losses, emphasizes the importance of effective evacuation programs. Despite such programs, fire departments typically maintain that total emergency evacuation of a high-rise building is not practical because:

1. Portions of the building are beyond the reach of fire ladders,
2. There is the potential for a significant stack effect,
3. The time to evacuate may be unreasonably long.

Since fire departments usually do not have the technology to deal with these problems, one would think that building owners and tenants could implement evacuation technologies of their own. However, fire departments want to ensure that nothing interferes with their established fire-fighting procedure. For the same reason, they oppose any evacuation process that is not under their control.

Evacuation of a building is a complex affair. The accepted procedure for immediate evacuation is from the floor where the fire or explosion occurs and the two floors immediately above and below. These occupants are directed to a refuge area and are given movement priority. Thereafter, movement and evacuation priorities are determined on the basis of particular fire and smoke conditions reported by emergency evacuation floor control teams and fire department personnel. Once the occupants have reached the ground, they are moved away from the building to a predetermined location for a headcount. Of course, in an extreme situation, such as the World Trade Center, nobody stays around to be counted. Nevertheless, the fire department feels responsible for the people that have reached the street, as well as for those that remain in the building.

Movement of occupants to a refuge location, as well as total evacuation, requires coordination between previously assigned emergency evacuation teams and the fire department operations command post. This involves a hierarchy through which all the evacuation decisions must flow. It also assumes that there will be effective communication between the command post and higher floors. We have seen in the case of the World Trade Center and other fires that information on the conditions is not always adequate and inappropriate orders may be issued. However, the fire department follows the doctrine that it must maintain control of all such situations.

The extent of this control is illustrated by the procedures followed when several fire units respond to a high-rise fire. To avoid jurisdictional disputes, it is usual for the first fire chief arriving at the site to set up a ground floor operations command post. The next chief to arrive is sent up to a floor below the fire site to set up a tactical command post. Such procedures have been developed over the years, they are taught in fire safety academies, and they are difficult to change. Introduction of any new technology that could affect these procedures would be time consuming and difficult.

Given these facts, it is no surprise that fire officials are not comfortable with any system that would permit building occupants to leave without having received specific evacuation orders. They are also concerned that, if people knock out windows to use them for egress, the glass would rain down on those below causing injury and possible death.

Deployment of a descender system, such as EasyDown(TM), would not affect fire department procedures if use of the system was covered in the evacuation plan. That is because each floor is monitored by a fire marshal who can determine, in consultation with the fire department, if and when the system should be used. However, if the control hierarchy breaks down, as it can happen in some situations, nobody could blame the occupants for trying to get out of the building as well as they can. By avoiding any unknown egress bottlenecks, the EasyDown(TM)(TM) system would enable them to do this.

Data from National Safety Council, Philadelphia Fire Department and Boston Fire Department

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