Critical Communications

How to Create and Communicate a Building Evacuation Plan for Fire Emergencies

By Shannon Gallo

Heat, smoke and flames: This frightening mix can easily cause panic and confusion in any organization. Preparation, sound planning and rehearsal are the best means of minimizing chaos. To protect your people, places and property, it’s vital to have a predetermined emergency fire action plan for your business.

Getting everyone out of the building quickly and safely is always the first priority. However, it’s important to establish how this will be accomplished, as well as to address related issues, such as where everyone will meet, how you will communicate and who will provide first aid, if necessary. Take the time to think through these logistics and review them with your employees on a regular basis. The seven key focus areas below will help you devise a comprehensive emergency fire evacuation plan.

1. Comply with Fire Safety Standards: Are You Up to Date?

Fire safety standards are your first line of defense, both practically and legally. It’s important to delegate specific personnel to be responsible for ensuring your building meets all codes and regulations. Routine inspections, maintenance and required system updates should all be on a calendar schedule and thoroughly documented. The National Fire Protection Association provides outlines of business regulations and tools to prevent and respond to fire emergencies. Your state fire marshal is another helpful resource for personnel training. OSHA offers additional guidance for implementing your strategy, as well as example fire emergency plans.

2. Identify the Sphere of Impact: Who is in the Building?

At any given moment, your business may have a combination of employees, customers, maintenance staff and delivery people on campus. How do you keep track of everyone? What about visitors? Is there a sign-in log at the front desk? Do any of your people on-premises have sight, hearing or ambulatory challenges that require special accommodations? If the elevator is compromised during a fire, what’s the plan for people who are unable to use the stairs? Know who is on your premises at any point in the day and what help they may require to safely exit.

3. Map Your Routes: Where Should Everyone Go?

Once you’ve established who is on the premises, the next question is where specifically they should go in the event of a fire. Exit routes should be clearly marked throughout the building and communicated regularly to both new hires and existing personnel. In areas where there are denser concentrations of staff, multiple exits are important, as well as a plan that accounts for the number of people moving through each door. Once away from the fire, where will everyone meet? Depending on how many people you have, the size of your building and its proximity to open outdoor space versus highly trafficked streets, you may need to designate multiple post-evacuation meeting points. 

4. Pre-Assign Roles: Who Will Do What?

Although you most likely have a documented hierarchy relative to work, leadership may differ during a fire evacuation procedure. If employees work in a separate area from their manager, having a separate accountability hierarchy for fire evacuation may make sense. Everyone should know who to contact and how to communicate with them in order to mark themselves safe. During an emergency, other roles will emerge; endeavor to designate them in advance. Who will administer first aid? Who will communicate with the fire department? Who will notify families of what’s happening? If media outlets arrive, who will represent the company? Ready.gov recommends outlining this ahead of time to prevent confusion and duplicative efforts during an emergency.

5. Determine Your Communications Strategy: How Will You Reach Each Other?

Communication is an essential component of a fire emergency evacuation plan. The larger your business, the more challenging it is to maintain accountability, determine if anyone is still in the danger zone and identify who needs assistance.

Even in a longstanding small company with low turnover, it’s unlikely that everyone has each other’s cell phone numbers. A critical communications system allows you to address this issue in advance. If you don’t have accurate and up-to-date contact information for all of your employees, your emergency management system will be useless during a crisis. A critical communications product enables organizations to sync HR databases with emergency communication software, ensuring all contact information is as accurate as possible. And because people often move or change their phone number or email address, ideally, your system will allow staff to securely log in and update their information at any time.

A modern critical communications system also arms businesses with two-way communications if any employee needs to request assistance or has further questions. Two-way communication allows recipients to mark themselves as safe or ask for help.

It’s also important to see who has received the message, whether they have opened it, and how they have responded. When you see that someone has not received or responded to a message, you can work with your HR team to find out whether they need assistance or simply didn’t bother to reply to the message. Once a crisis has passed, you can analyze the responses and reports to help improve your emergency response plan going forward.

6. Ensure Business Continuity and Cyber Security: Can You Maintain Operations?

Will your business be able to continue in the aftermath of a fire? What equipment was compromised and how will it be recovered? Are there online applications that need to be closed remotely in order to secure sensitive information? This is another reason it’s important to utilize a critical event management platform that enables real-time documentation and communications during the event. Not surprisingly, the National Safety Council points to the intersection of technology, safety and health in its discussion of current workplace trends.

7. Rehearse Regularly: Does Everyone Know What to Do?

Fire prevention in the workplace is more than telling everyone which exit to use. Effective office fire safety planning involves regular training and practice of the aforementioned steps. Make sure all of your people are familiar and comfortable with your critical event management platform before an emergency occurs. Conduct regular reviews of your building evacuation plan and make updates, as necessary. When new factors present themselves (such as COVID-19), make sure they’re incorporated into your plans and any new required safety equipment is available.

Businesses have a duty of care when it comes to protecting people, places and property. If a fire breaks out, there isn’t time to think about what to do. Set aside time now to create a comprehensive and effective emergency fire and office building evacuation plan.

To learn more about the best practices for emergency notifications, download our ebook, The Basics of Emergency Communication: Understanding Notification Technology, today.