NFPA Impact: February 2017
How well do your public-education efforts protect your citizens in public-assembly buildings?
By Shayne Mintz
On Dec. 2, the residents of Oakland, Calif. witnessed a devastating and tragic fire in a repurposed warehouse that served as a performance space and collective group home. That fire left 36 dead and many family members, friends and acquaintances devastated and bewildered by the loss. The building, hauntingly referred to as The Ghost Ship, was the seventh deadliest fire in the United States in the last 50 years.
We must avoid thoughts that this type of tragedy could never happen in Canada. As the local fire expert, can you declare with 100 per cent conviction that something like this will never happen in a community like yours?
Just because you may not have altered warehouses and converted lofts in your community, think about where the public congregates in your municipality. You probably have theatres or cinemas, community centres, hockey rinks, and don’t forget those innovative local entrepreneurs who want to use more non-traditional venues such as hay mazes and rural barns for parties, weddings or other celebrations. In locations such as these, patrons are generally more concerned with enjoying themselves than with their safety and that of others.
Fires in assembly occupancies have been some of the most deadly when the proper features, systems and construction materials are not present or working properly. The NFPA’s Life Safety Code (NFPA 101) requires a considerable number of safety systems and features to keep occupants safe should a fire occur. The level of safety is not the result of any single safety system or feature, but rather is achieved through a combination of multiple safeguards.
This is where you as the local fire authority can help to prevent these types of disasters. As the recognized expert in your community, people look to you to keep them safe. Make the residents of your community aware that they too have a role to play in their safety in these types of buildings.
Here are tips you may wish to include in your public education messaging for anyone attending these high-volume events.
Before going to the venue, people should create a communication plan to ensure relatives, friends or others attending the event know how to make contact if they get separated or in case of emergency.
Once people arrive and before entering any publicly accessible building, a quick visual survey should be done to determine if the building looks well kept. Do the exits seem adequate and do the doors open outward to allow an easy and safe exit in the case of an emergency? Is the exit and outside area clear of materials, obstacles or vehicles?
When inside the building, immediately look for all available exits, not just the one through the entrance door. Some exits may be in front, but there is always the possibility that the closest exit may be in the rear. In an emergency or evacuation, the closest exit should be used; the entrance may not be accessible.
Check for clear exit pathways by making sure the aisles are wide enough and not obstructed by unsecured chairs, furniture, plants or other obstacles. Check to make sure exits are not blocked or chained; violation should be reported to management immediately. If the issue isn’t addressed, leave the building. Anyone experiencing these issues should register a complaint with the local fire authority.
Finally, do people feel safe? Does the venue appear to be overcrowded? Is there smoking occurring, and are there any fire sources evident such as burning candles? Might there be pyrotechnics or other heat sources that cause a sense of unease in the building? A check should be made to see what safety systems are in place such as alternate exits or sprinkler systems. Bottom line – if people feel insecure in the building, they should leave.
If an emergency does occur, people should react immediately. If an alarm sounds, or there is any smoke, fire or other unusual disturbance, immediately exit the building in an orderly fashion. Once out, people should stay out, and under no circumstances should anyone try to re-enter a burning building. Trained firefighters should be left to conduct rescue operations.
The NFPA has numerous resources that fire departments can use and customize to help educate residents about protecting themselves from fire and other emergencies in large venues.
Follow this link for more information www.nfpa.org/public-education.
Shayne Mintz has more than 35 years of experience in the fire service, having completed his career as chief of the Burlington Fire Department in Ontario. He is now the Canadian regional director for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Contact Shayne at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter at @ShayneMintz