Is there a requirement for building owners/operators to hold regular
emergency drills for occupants?
Although not mandated for all buildings, NFPA 101,
Life Safety Code, requires that workplaces, healthcare facilities,
educational institutions and other occupancies provide
evacuation/relocation plan information and routinely schedule and hold
drills when practicable.
What are the key elements of emergency preparedness?
Early warning (typically through an alarm or voice
communication system), adequate means of egress (exit routes) and
occupant familiarity with the plan through knowledge and practice.
Is high-rise building evacuation different from other buildings?
Evacuating multiple floors of a high-rise building
creates the cumulative effect of requiring great numbers of people to
travel great vertical distances on stairs. In the 1993 bombing of the
World Trade Center, for example, we learned that in some cases it took as
long as 6-8 hours for occupants to successfully exit the buildings. The
physical demands made on high-rise occupants exiting in stairwells can
exceed their capabilities.
The fire and life safety systems installed in high-rise buildings
today, including automatic fire sprinkler protection, are designed to
control a fire and therefore lessen the need to evacuate all occupants.
In a typical scenario, the occupants of the fire floor and the floors
immediately above and below it should immediately use the exit stairs
to descend to a floor level that is at least several floors below the
fire floor, and await further instruction from safety officials.
Remember, these building systems are designed to control a challenging
fire; not one caused by a commercial airliner crashing into the
Under what circumstances may I use the elevator safely?
It is never appropriate to use the elevator during
a fire or similar building emergency, even in a two-story building. When
a fire occurs, elevators are designed to be recalled to a designated
floor, normally the lobby. In unusual circumstances, an elevator
malfunction may cause the elevator to travel to the fire floor itself,
thus exposing occupants to the fire. Elevator shafts may also allow some
smoke to enter the shaft and migrate toward the roof of the building. If
they are in the elevator and there is smoke in the elevator shaft, they
will exposed to that smoke. Any vertical shaft in a building can allow
smoke to quickly rise to the top of the building.
If exiting down stairs takes so long, am I better off going up to the
roof and waiting to be rescued there?
No. Using helicopters for roof rescue is an
extraordinarily dangerous procedure for the occupants, the pilots and
firefighters who may be in or around the building. In severe fires, the
large thermal currents, generated by the heat from the fire, can cause
the helicopter to be buffeted up or down, making it hard to control. The
resulting down thrust from the helicopter rotor can force smoke and super
heated air on top of fire suppression personnel. Finally, ascending to
the roof may prove a waste of valuable time, as it may be impossible for
a helicopter to approach the roof. Most building designs incorporate
numerous features that direct occupants to the street or grade level for
Should my building have any type of exterior escape device?
Items such as escape chutes and controlled descent
devices are permitted by the Life Safety Code to provide escape routes in
special structures, such as some towers and special manufacturing
environments. They are not permitted, nor recommended by U.S.-based codes
for commercial and public buildings. Such devices do not come close to
the level of protection provided by the other code-mandated
How are emergency instructions tailored to the actual emergency event
and communicated to building occupants?
High-rise building fire alarm systems are required
to have emergency voice communication. Trained emergency personnel assess
the emergency and broadcast a variety of specific messages to the
occupants. The occupants believed to be in the greatest potential danger
are instructed to use the exit stairs to begin their descent. Occupants
of other floors might be instructed to stay where they are and await
further instruction. In these cases, only occupants on the fire floor and
the floors immediately above and below typically receive the announcement
through the system. Should the scale of the emergency increase, the
announcements can be revised to include additional floors, or the entire
building if necessary.
If I stay and then the situation becomes untenable and I am trapped,
should I break a window? Should I jump?
If you are trapped in a high-rise building, try to
locate yourself in an area where you can close the door and seal the
cracks to keep smoke out. Use a telephone to call the fire department and
report your exact location in the building. Try to be patient. Emergency
rescue of high-rise building occupants can take a long time. You can
signal your position to rescue personnel from a window using a
light-colored cloth, but it is not advisable to break a window. If you
can open the window slightly, it is generally safe to do so to allow
fresh air in, but be prepared to close it if smoke comes in. A broken
window cannot be adjusted to block smoke from pouring in. Finally,
falling glass from a broken window can sever fire hoses and severely
injure rescue and suppression personnel below. It is very dangerous to
use a window for escape from anything higher than the second
Will the systems work in a terrorist attack?
Prior to the events of September 11th, a suicide
pilot of a jetliner was not a credible or foreseeable building design
hazard. Society has not demanded of its public officials that they enact
laws that would require the expenditure of almost unlimited amounts of
money to protect against all foreseeable and unforeseeable hazards. In
reality, there may simply be no physical way to provide such protection,
even with unlimited funds. Systems do continue to work under normal fire
conditions. Current building evacuation or relocation procedures consider
the need to move occupants from harm's way with a fire that grows at a
very predictable way at a rate that is typical to the anticipated fire
hazard in the building.
How can I judge if my building's evacuation plan is adequate for any
It is highly likely that the procedures are adequate. In our
society, we plan on events that are likely to happen in a building or
structure. In large part, evacuation procedures are geared toward an
unintentional fire occurring in a building. Often times, these procedures
are also robust enough to contemplate deliberately set or incendiary
fires as well. Your building's evacuation procedures should make clear to
you and all occupants the actions you are to take, and when to take them.
In addition, every occupancy should post evacuation plans/routes and
stage emergency response drills at least once a year. Buildings are
required to periodically test fire safety systems as well.
What procedures are applied to people in a wheelchair or with other
disabilities that affect mobility?
Able-bodied as well as disabled occupants must be
covered under any written procedures. If your floor has to be evacuated,
you should plan to horizontally relocate to a refuge area. In buildings
with automatic fire sprinkler protection, this may simply be to an
adjacent compartment or office space. In other cases, your building may
be provided with areas of refuge. These spaces may be located as
stand-alone, barriered compartments on the floor, or they may consist of
oversized landings in stairwells. Regardless of which feature you have,
your plan includes waiting in one of the designated spaces until fire
department personnel can remove you. Often times, these spaces are
provided with a two-way communication device so you can give rescue
personnel your location. Your work environment may also supplement this
procedure with a "buddy" system. In this case, you need to
anticipate situations where the "buddy" may not be available in
an emergency. In every case, and regardless of one's abilities, if you
have any questions about your building's plan or how you fit into it, you
should ask your employer for detailed information and request a role for
those with disabilities in crafting the plan.
If the neighboring high-rise is one fire, should my building evacuate?
Not during a typical fire.You should remain
vigilant and determine if there is any change in conditions that could
result in your building being threatened by the adjacent fire. In such
cases, emergency personnel have adequate time to order evacuations of
What happens when the event is not typical?
Safety is everyone's business so we all must take
a certain amount of personal responsibility. Standard operating
procedures, verbal instructions and even past experience may not be
adequate or appropriate in dealing with extraordinary events. A good
guideline to follow is based on the acronym, RED: React: Take any
indication of smoke, fire or other threat seriously. Evaluate: Judge the
level of the threat by confirming evidence, conditions and available
information. Decide: There are only two choices, both difficult. 1)
Follow your plan and immediately leave the building. 2) Follow your plan
and stay where you are or descend to the designated level below the fire
floor and prepare to take protective/defensive action.
Public Affairs and Life Safety Education Section
Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department
4100 Chain Bridge Road Fairfax, VA 22030
703-246-3801 or TTY 711