Fire & Life Safety (Focus On Preparation and Prevention)

Challenging Tradition

Don’t expect to apply existing emergency plans to new buildings.

The term "tradition" is often applied to colleges and universities. Many schools have existed for more than a century — there is a tradition of learning, community involvement, and producing excellent graduates and life-changing research. These same campuses reinvent themselves slowly; buildings are replaced, renovated or in some cases the campus expands with satellite locations. Relocation is a constant on most campuses; departments and staff are moved from one building to another to accommodate changes in mission or as they are realigned with other functions on campus — and new traditions are started.

With each newly occupied space (new facility or new occupants) comes the need to create new fire and life safety plans. Relocated staff will need to be retrained on emergency procedures, evacuation procedures and new emergency assembly points. In some cases, staff may need to be notified of unique hazards that may impact how, when or where they evacuate. There may be different-sounding alarm systems in their new space. Newer alarm systems may have a voice annunciation system compared to the older, “traditional” bells or horns.

New Building, New Escape Routes

During a fire prevention program audit of a small university in the south, it was noted that several departments had been relocated into a modern, mixed-use building. There were new state-of-the-art classrooms on the ground floor; labs, department offices and meeting rooms were located on the upper floors. As the auditor moved through the new building, surveying occupants about their knowledge of basic fire prevention, emergency procedures and evacuation routes, he was given three different answers for each question. The occupants from each of the three units inhabiting the new building gave the correct information for the buildings they were previously in. The old, traditional evacuation routes and evacuation locations, as well as occupant hazard notification systems, were assumed to be the same in the new building.

As the audit continued, encountered was a large space in the process of being set up for an event. Custodial staff were setting tables, administrative staff members were directing where each of the tables and chairs was to be located. As the room was set up, they blocked two of the three exits with tables. When asked by the campus representative on the audit team why they were blocking the exits, the response was simply, “this is the layout that we used in the old space.” This “traditional” setup worked just fine in their previous location, but would not work in the new space. As more questions were asked, it became apparent that both the custodial and administrative staff knew they were blocking exit doors. One person even said, “ we won’t have an emergency, we won’t need to evacuate… this new building must be safer than the old building.”

Train Personnel on New Procedures

Clearly, there was a need to start some new traditions related to fire and life safety. This school and the staff are not unique; people and program functions are relocated everyday at any number of campuses. In most cases, just like the one mentioned here, people are going to do what they have done in the past — they will apply the traditional safety concepts they were instructed to follow until told otherwise. This example identifies a challenge each campus fire safety professional faces — reaching out to departments as they move spaces.

Fire codes and workplace safety standards all require that people be trained on basic emergency procedures when they start a new job. Most campuses include this training during new employee orientation. Often, as in the case here, campuses forget that even a tenured workforce will need to be retrained or reoriented on fire safety procedures when they are moved into a new location. A survey of some schools indicates that they meet this challenge at the design team level. As new facilities are designed, a project manager, staff safety professional or department representative is assigned the responsibility to understand what fire safety plans need to be developed and to oversee the retraining of staff as they move into the new facility. Other schools use outside consultants to write new safety plans for the entire facility. This ensures that unique hazards throughout the facility are understood and that each department’s plans are integrated with other departments sharing the building. Both approaches are valid. The goal is the same — create a new fire and life safety plan that creates a new tradition of safety for building occupants.

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 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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