The Value of Testing Alarm and Evacuation Systems

A new calendar year has just started and campuses are halfway through the academic year. It is a time to set goals for projects you want to accomplish before this year vanishes just as fast as last year. For many campuses, we have cut all there is to cut out of our budgets. Across the country, we are doing less; if a program costs money, we are probably not moving forward with it this year. New initiatives — unless they save money from the start — are hard to gain approval for. At the same time, many schools are focusing in on what absolutely must be done. In the world of fire and life safety, this means focusing in on making sure alarm systems will work when needed and that they will notify building occupants when there is a need to evacuate.

Partnering Alarms and Drills

The testing and maintenance of alarm systems is being partnered with emergency evacuation drills. Campus administrators have realized that it makes little sense to test the bells, horns, and strobes after hours and then sound them again for building occupants as part of an evacuation drill. These are two tasks that are easy to combine, and that fit the theme of doing more with less — we are only in a building once instead of twice — a 50 percent reduction in time spent on two activities.

This approach is a win for all departments involved. Facilities staff can have many eyes and ears, in the form of building occupants, to help listen to horns or watch to see if strobes are operating. Department staff in the building can test their emergency evacuation plans and verify that personnel know proper procedures to follow when there is a need to evacuate. Local emergency crews can be invited to participate, and can be reassured that the institution is exercising emergency plans in buildings on campus.

Combining these two activities does require some advanced planning. Staff from Facilities, Health and Safety, and the departments located in each building must meet ahead of time and discuss the combined test and drill. In some cases, departments may not be ready to conduct an evacuation drill. They may need assistance from Health and Safety to create a plan and train staff prior to conducting the evacuation portion of the drill. In some cases you may still need to conduct separate testing if building occupants are not ready for an evacuation drill.

Preparing the Participants

Ideally, once the yearly testing schedule is set, all the stakeholders can sit down two or three months ahead of the test date and review departmental plans; verify training has been completed with staff; and talk about how the test and drill will start, how long it should take, and how results will be measured for staff evacuation performance as well as any maintenance issues that are related to the alarm test.
The following items can be included in the combined test:
  1. Do employees recognize the alarm and take initial action to evacuate?
  2. Do employees stop the activity they are performing and head toward the nearest available exit?
  3. Once employees have exited the building, do they report to the department meeting point and check in?
  4. Are all horns, strobes, voice speakers, audible textual devices, and bells working?
  5. Are all notification devices visible, and are they operating at the correct decibel level?

How Did It Work?

Once employees have evacuated, it is important to conduct a debriefing and ask them about the devices in their exit path. In fact, it should be made clear to them in training sessions prior to the drill that they should pay attention to the operation of the notification devices during the evacuation exercise. Employees should also be asked about the exercise. Did they feel training prior to the drill was adequate? Were there obstructions in the egress route? What other information would have been helpful to prepare for the drill? Did all employees recognize the alarm, or was there confusion over what was sounding?

Taking a few minutes to talk with employees will certainly let them know you care about their safety. It will allow them to pass along concerns while they are still fresh and allow you to respond to these concerns on the spot, potentially avoiding a longer follow up — which saves you time.

Mike Halligan is the associate director of Environmental Health and Safety at the University of Utah and is responsible for Fire Prevention and Special Events Life safety. He frequently speaks about performance-based code solutions for campus building projects and is recognized as an expert on residence hall fire safety programs. He can be reached at 801/585-9327 or at mike.halligan@ehs.utah.edu.

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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