The Safer Campus

Fire Safety in Shared Spaces

Fire Safety

PHOTO © WENDY KAVENEY PHOTOGRAPHY/SHUTTERSTOCK

Every campus should have a fire prevention and response plan. How much effort your campus puts into prevention and preparedness will have a direct impact on how quickly you can get back to your core mission of education and research.

While each building on a campus is unique and requires a customized fire safety plan, your fire prevention team can develop templates that can help lead the prevention planning process. Often forgotten in the planning process are the properties a campus leases. It is clear that when our on-campus footprint is full we are increasingly moving operations to leased facilities in the community. Often, these facilities are in different municipal jurisdictions and will require discussion with not only a leasing company but also the local fire department.

Each department has different resources and capabilities, and it is important to understand the strengths and challenges of each fire department. Equally important is the need to be familiar with the fire prevention plan developed by your landlord or property management company.

Ask Questions

There are many ways you can integrate fire prevention and preparedness with the plans of other building tenants and the leasing agent. The first step is always the same — ask what plans are in place prior to signing a lease for the property and ask again whenever the property changes ownership or management.

When you ask about fire prevention plans don’t be surprised if the leasing company responds with little to no information. Most, if not all companies will reply that they test alarm and sprinkler systems in accordance with fire standards. Leasing agents will then typically attempt to transfer responsibility and liability back to you by informing you that your operations are responsible for fire prevention and preparedness. While this is partially true — you must inform staff and students in your spaces of the hazards in place — it is also your responsibility to ensure that your prevention and preparedness plan is synchronized with other tenants and the overall building plan. In short, fire prevention and preparedness plans are a shared responsibility among all tenants and the building owner — this really is no different than what we see on campus when there are multiple departments within a single building.

Take the Lead

It may be up to you to convince the building management team and other tenants that a fire prevention and preparedness plan is important and necessary. Fortunately, there is plenty of information you can share to help others see the need for a plan that works for all. It may be best to approach the conversation with other tenants as a disaster planning or business continuity plan instead of a plan focused solely on fire.

Business tenants in a shared facility should care about business continuity planning. Emphasize with the leasing company and tenants that if each business engages in prevention, preparedness, response and recovery planning it potentially benefits all. It may be best to take the lead and develop a draft plan for your operations within the building and then invite others to read the plan in order to get ideas for their plan.

How to start the discussion is simple — everyone wants to stay in business, and the process to plan for this can be broken down into the following steps:

  • Conduct a risk assessment. Identify what disasters are most common in your area.
  • Start with a fire safety plan. Fire is the most common risk common to all tenants.
  • Have a plan for employees. You must give them the skills they need to prevent and respond.
  • Create an evacuation plan. Leaving the workplace quickly is sometimes necessary.
  • Plan to continue operations. Look at what it will take to operate from another location.
  • Prepare for a medical emergencies. Hold joint training with other companies for first aid and CPR.
  • Conduct building-wide preparedness activities. Take the lead and invite local fire departments, the Red Cross and emergency mangers to come in and present.
  • Hold joint drills. An evacuation plan may work for one tenant; however, it also needs to work when multiple tenants leave at the same time.
  • Promote individual preparedness. If individuals and groups of occupants are prepared they will be better able to support business operations.
  • Review plans annually. Plans will evolve as operations and tenants change.

Encourage Cooperation

Many smaller tenants in your shared building may not have the time or resources to lead this effort. You may need to take the lead and invite others to sit down to learn why it’s important to work together. Start by inviting management-level representatives from each business to meet and put together a building-wide joint emergency preparedness team. Ask the building management representative to be part of the team. Any plan developed without building manager input will be deficient. Ask the property owners if they have a template to use or, if in a major city, to provide a copy of the plan they have on file with the local fire department (many large cities have laws that require these plans).

Develop relationships with all the businesses in your building and work together to go through the ten steps identified above. Agree to discuss one of the ten topics every month. Breaking these elements down into monthly goals makes the plan easier to achieve. If your campus has operations in an off-campus high rise, encourage floor wardens to discuss their plans for each floor together. There is value in this so confusion is minimized on each floor.

When emergency evacuation drills are scheduled, verify that all tenants will be participating. If not possible, ask that tenants not participating with all employees to send staff representatives who can observe other tenants evacuating. They will be able to take lessons learned back to their team and implement improvements to their plans.

The Goal is Preparedness

The goal is to be sure all tenants sharing space with your campus operations are prepared. This will minimize the risk of fire and other emergencies, which not only keeps them in business but also keeps your leased space campus operations functioning.

The more all tenants know what is expected of them to reduce fire risks and to respond to events as well as any division of shared responsibilities, the more likely all occupants will be able to prevent fires and respond in a positive manner in the event of an emergency. Taking the lead to create a proactive fire safety partnership is the best way to protect your off-campus staff and operations.

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Mike Halligan is the President of Higher Education Safety, a consulting group specializing in fire prevention program audits, strategic planning, training and education programs and third party plan review and occupancy inspections. He retired after twenty six years as the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management at the University of Utah. He frequently speaks and is a recognized expert on residence hall/student housing fire safety and large scale special event planning. He also works with corporate clients to integrate products into the campus environment that promote safety and security.

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