When you hear about fire compliance at properties you'll often hear reference to a ‘fire evacuation procedure’, or other similar items like fire drills, fire emergency evacuation plans (FEEP), and fire action signage. These are all about forms of basically communicating to others how to react to a fire at a property and what to do about it.
Although this may sound obvious, the primary way is to just leave the property and get out. Simple.
However one problem is that people deal with this too flippantly. They see it is a chore to do, and want a simple template or standard policy to quickly apply.
Whereas in actual fact the whole thing should indeed boil down to simple and common-sense things like this, and being able to then tweak procedures to your own situation, don't bypass the thought process to get there, as every property and the way it is used by people is different. The terrible situation with, say, the Grenfell incident last year is testimony to this, and how whatever fire-compliance works and procedures exist MUST work together in reality.
Therefore it is important bring in the specialists. This doesn't need to be re-inventing the wheel, and a good one will help you set up systems that you can then develop yourselves and manage afterwards.
Too often people go to extremes here though, either no external fire-advice, or too much and needless re-assessments and paperwork.
Anyway, from a property management perspective the key is to help steer this advice in the right direction. To help identify factors of real-life management of the property, whether that's knowing who's in there to react to a fire, what people and contractors are involved with servicing fire systems, or what facilities the property has.
Therefore you often need to take a step back and not forget some basic points. Without getting bogged-down with detail, you need to remember an array of issues that should be noted in a good fire emergency evacuation procedure. So even if you do end up using a standard template, by discussing this with, say, a Fire Risk Assessor at the property you can soon agree a few changes and tweaks to get just right for this property and scenario.
So, here are some key factors to consider when forming a fire evacuation procedure, which is the way in which people should safely react to an instance of fire and vacate the property.
1. The Main Fire Strategy
First things first, you need to know what the correct procedure needs to be. It may sound straigh forward, but this can be missed in the midst of making assumptions and using existing procedures.
So, with residential property, a 'stay put' policy is now the norm; where people should stay in their dwelling rather than evacuate unless it's affecting their own area.
Even where you do have actual physical exit of people from the building in an evacuation, this can sometimes be phased across a large and complicated property rather than being simultaneous.
This all hinges back to what the existing fire strategy is for the property and the involvement of specialists like a Fire Risk Assessor to help decide things.
2. Fire Marshalls and Wardens
These are pre-trained people that can help coordinate people out of the building, often identified by bright-coloured jackets they then place on.
For larger and more complex sites you often see reference to fire wardens who do more searching and clearing of properties in an evacuation, and a fire marshal who leads people out to the fire assembly point, but often in smaller properties you see both phrases used interchangeably.
You have to watch out for multi-let buildings where each individual business occupier should have their own fire marshal for their own staff and people, in addition potentially to a building-wide fire marshal provided by the landlord and managing agent through, say, reception staff - this might not always be the case, and therefore individual marshals need to know who to ultimately report to.
3. Defending Fires
You often have to say what people need to do against a fire, to save any confusion. The priority is actually to get everyone out of the building and not to even try and put out the fire itself, so in effect you let the building burn and focus on people getting out.
One area of confusion can be fire extinguishers which are there to help try and put out a fire, although this is only if the fire is so bad that it is stopping safe exits, and usually only used by those who have been trained how to use them.
Therefore clarify this in the procedure, and maybe what level of very small minor fires people could try and easily put out by, for example, a fire blanket in a kitchen.
4. How to Alert People
The popular way to alert people of course is for a fire alarm to be blaring off, which has been triggered by smoke or heat on a detector, or someone manually pressing a call point. But you still need to know what happens then, as fire alarms are primarily to tell people to get out of a property whereas they may not be automatically connected to a remote monitoring service to help attend site and call the fire brigade as well.
So spell out what needs doing, namely calling 999 if people do see or suspect a real fire. And then how this should trigger further action with expected fire marshals, contractors, key-holder services, and fire service attending set.
But also think of other forms of alerting people, so even people shouting 'fire, fire, fire' which can even suffice without any formal fire alarm system in a small area where people will automatically be telling others.
5. Where People Go
So with the purpose of the whole evacuation procedure to get people out of the building, you need to tell people the area where to then go, often referred to as a fire assembly point. These are often far enough away from the building to be away from a potential building fire, but not so far away that it's difficult to get to or in the way of other people.
Also considering that the whole building may remain unlocked whilst a fire alarm is going off, people may also want to be still near the building to make sure no unauthorised person gets in the building.
And on a practical point, note what they can and can't take with them on-route, often not too many personal belongings although a mobile phone can be helpful as a point of contact for important contacts like the fire marshals.
Plus also make sure these areas are easy to reach, for example not involving the need to cross a busy road, or go under an archway in a building that may be on fire.
6. Basic Housekeeping
There is often a section on some good housekeeping principles that everyone should be aware of in order to reduce the risk of a fire even starting in the first place. So, for example, keeping combustible items out of the way, or being careful how you use the property and electrical appliances.
These are often found at the beginning of the fire evacuation procedure in bulletin points, and certainly worth checking if any unique points are needed for this particular property, not only through fire compliance but also, for example, if the building insurers request that no electric heaters are used.
7. Which Areas
It's good to work out what areas you're covering, and who's responsible for these. So roughly speaking, individual occupiers will need to be taking care of their own areas that they are liable for and a landlord or managing agent for any communal areas.
However there may well need to be some important overlap, and seeing what building facilities need noting. So, a fire alarm system may be linked to others and therefore affect the evacuation of other areas, with information on how to do this and liaise with others.
In such multi-let scenarios, there must also be one holistic policy often through the landlord and managing agent that accommodates the requirements of each individual occupier.
You may require reference to those with disabilities and vulnerable persons. This is often dictated by individual occupiers assessing their own situations, and generally themselves needing to accommodate this directly which can then be noted in any wider property-wide procedure.
So there may be Evacuation chairs to help people out the building, or even refuge areas to deliberately keep people within the building until the fire brigade attend. Although this may appears strange, those with disabilities often need to wait for others to first evacuate the property in order to ensure the speed and momentum of the evacuation is maintained.
9. What Happens at the End
So, the evacuation procedure works and everyone gets out the building safely and waits at the fire assembly point. You then need to spell out what happens next.
You then need to address issues including who makes the final decision to go back into the building and who is allowed to turn off any fire alarm and devices.
Although in a real-fire scenario this will often be the fire brigade or contractor who needs to call the shots, you need to also think how to deal with false alarms.
10. Effective Communication
Good communication is essential, particularly with how this fire evacuation procedure is issued to relevant people. This could be direct or as part of other building guides and documents, and posted on, say, notice boards.
Although this is more what you do with the procedure afterwards, you could still mention this within the procedure to remind people how to use and communicate this.
11. Real People & Property
Remember that you're dealing with real people at a real piece of real estate, therefore get to the bottom of who these people are and what involvement they will have in the evacuation process.
As a rule of thumb, regular occupiers and staff will need to have more formal training and awareness in fire and evacuation issues, whereas visitors will not need to be as involved and can rely on others guiding them and good signage.
Also with people-groups the main leader or manager may need to be a fire marshal, or at least be able to guide everyone calmly out if the building and let them know what is happening.
12. Fire Drills & Training
People need to have an initial understanding of this final fire evacuation procedure, whether that's from a copy for them to read, or as part of any initial induction training where people get more practical and talk through what happens and where people go.
You may also need regular practice of these procedures so it's fresh in people’s mind as to how it happens in reality. So for business properties this is typically every 6 months as a formal fire evacuation drill, either by the business itself or through the landlord or managing agent coordinating for everyone in a multi-let property.
13. False Alarms
These are actually the main cause of fire evacuations, a false alarm from, for example, toast setting off the fire alarm or someone accidently pressing the call point button. And yet they are often not referred to in the fire evacuation procedure as to how people react to them.
In short, people must still assume the worst and wait until official action is taken to say otherwise. So although people may realise it was only burnt toast which was then stopped, they must still leave the building and wait for an appointed person to come and check the fire alarm panel at the property to confirm that all is safe before turning the alarm off and allowing people back into the building.
Okay, this is a pain if you have to stand outside in the rain for 20 minutes, however this is the way it has to be. There should be no shortcuts like people knowing how to turn the alarm off themselves, or walking back in the building when they please.
Therefore mention in the fire evacuation procedure, who will be available to help address and who to contact if people do believe it is a false alarm.
14. Escape Routes
These are the actual ways that people can leave a property to get straight outside. Usually the main entrance routes, stairs, and corridors are still the main way to leave, but you can have additional ones as well to help in times when these main routes are affected by any fire.
So this is where you see hidden rear stairs often come into play, with signs that highlight that available to use only in these types of emergencies.
All these not only need identifying but then for people to understand which ones are used. So in an emergency do they have a choice or do people need to treat one way as the main way unless they come to resistance?
In regard to the fire evacuation procedures, these all may need noting in here, or more general reference to using, say, the nearest and safest routes as identified on site.
Getting The Fire Evacuation Procedure Right
As you look to form a new fire evacuation procedure or update the current one for a property, these pointers will help you look at it from a property-management perspective and the sort of issues and questions you need to make sure are included. The actual nitty-gritty procedures along with other fire strategy documents and fire risk assessment need to be completed by a competent person, but the best way to make most of this advice is to talk through these sort of wider issues with them.
You can then often end up using a standard template and making whatever changes you need. You can find these online or purchase thorough procedures, making sure they're the right ones to the size and type of property you're dealing with.
After competed, you then need to communicate to everyone, both formally along with other fire-compliance documents, but also practically; talking and explaining through in situations like staff training, contractor inductions, and occupier lettings.
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