Have an Exit Strategy

For the last year or so I have started some of my speaking engagements with the phrase, “Have an Exit Strategy.” I “borrowed” this phrase from the Texas State Fire Marshal’s office. At a conference several years ago, I introduced Paul Maldonado — Texas State Fire Marshal — where he started off his speech by asking if we all had an exit strategy from the room we were in. The phrase stuck with many people in the room. Many now start presentations by asking, “Do you have an exit strategy for where you live, work, and play?” This leads into a statement that the speaker will be leaving should the fire alarm sound during the speech. Exits are then identified and a meeting place across the street from the venue is suggested.

The Texas program started in response to the February 2003 Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island. One hundred people died in that fire. Many died because they only knew one exit path — the door through which they had entered. The concept of teaching people to know how to exit a building from multiple exits is not new. On campus, fire prevention staff members deliver that message every day. We talk to students and staff and ask them to find two ways out. What was lacking was a catchy phrase for staff and students to remember to apply the instruction to all the places they work on campus and all the places they find themselves after the leave campus.

Be Sure Everyone Knows the Plan
Making sure your campus operation provides an exit strategy for all employees makes sense. Employees will be better prepared in the event of an emergency on campus either during the day or after hours. State Occupational Safety and Health training requirements will be met and documented and your staff will be able to assist visitors and students less familiar with a facility to the nearest and best exit. Your staff will also be able to identify means-of-egress safety concerns. Blocked, locked, or missing markings can be identified faster and corrections made because staff recognize these problems and the impact the problems have on their personal exit strategy.

Invite campus fire prevention staff to talk at your next staff meeting. They can discuss what employees should always watch for and how to correct many egress safety issues immediately. If your campus does not have fire safety staff, contact your local fire prevention office. They too will be able to lead a discussion that helps develop a personal exit strategy for each employee. Lastly, there are plenty of consultants who can help put this plan together for your department.

Address the Following Elements
Regardless of whom you use to assist in putting together your exit strategy plan, the plan should address the following elements:
  • Keep all exit paths free of obstructions.
  • Make sure all exit signs are visible and bulbs are replaced when burned out.
  • Exit doors are not blocked, locked, or chained shut.
  • Find two exits from every building in which you work, play, or live. Know that the best way out may not be the same way you came in.
  • Report overcrowding. If you suspect too many people are in a space, tell fire prevention staff or your supervisor immediately.
  • If students or departments have added paper or other materials to the walls, floors, and ceilings in the hallway, report it.
  • Know where fire extinguishers are located.
  • Know where fire alarm pull stations are located and how to use them. This allows other to be notified and use their personal exit strategies.

Find More Information
For more information on this program, visit the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Website. The National Fire Protection Association also has resources available online to help train staff on exiting. In addition, the Center for Campus Fire Safety also has a free library with resources to help create safe exit plans.

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, is recognized as an expert on residence hall fire safety programs, and conducts school fire prevention program audits/strategic planning. 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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