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How to ensure everyone is evacuated safely during a security threat

18 July 2017

With any emergency, it’s about getting everyone out of a building safely during evacuation as managing director at Evac+Chair International, Gerard Wallace, explains.

As the current threat level for international terrorism in the UK is severe, it’s vital for business owners to ensure they have comprehensive and up-to-date evacuation procedures in place.

Although similar, emergency evacuation procedures caused by security threats, are tailored differently to fire evacuation procedures. For example, evacuating a building to a nearby car park or to a clearly marked evacuation point in a public area isn't sensible as is evacuating to a location within 500m of a building.

A Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan, known as a ‘PEEP’, must also be in place to ensure the needs of all employees and visitors, especially those who are mobility-impaired, are adhered to.

Employer’s responsibility

As stated in the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, it’s no longer the responsibility of the fire service to facilitate evacuation of non-domestic premises, it’s an employer’s. As a result of this, company owners must ensure their buildings are well prepared for evacuating all – employees, visitors, students or the mobility-impaired – safely and efficiently.

Alongside coherent and wide-ranging evacuation procedures, trained team members who have undergone practical training in the operation of any evacuation equipment, must be in place. As well as regular fire evacuation procedures, regular drills for the provision of security threats should be held to ensure all staff are familiar with procedures.

Pre-planning is essential

During a security threat, no matter what the circumstance, it can be difficult to stay calm and collected which is why pre-planning is essential in order to anticipate, identify and mitigate any problems with evacuation, especially for those who are mobility-impaired.

The government gives specific recommendations during a terror threat; run, hide, tell. However, not all people can escape from danger quickly so it’s the responsibility of the business owner – also referred to as the responsible person – to ensure safe, fast and easy evacuation for all.

Under legislation, the responsible person must develop a ‘PEEP’. The aim of these plans is to provide people who cannot get themselves out of a building unaided during an emergency, with the necessary information to be able to manage their escape from the building.

But it is not just for people with physical disabilities. PEEPs are for anyone who will need help during an evacuation including children, the elderly or frail, anyone with a temporary condition or people who may not be able to use stairs, hear the fire alarm or move quickly which might hinder their escape.

Well thought through PEEPs are important in making our workplaces safe for everybody and demonstrate commitment to improving accessibility.

During the pre-planning stage, that’s the time where difficult questions need to be answered to ensure everyone can evacuate a building safely during an emergency. Questions your responsible person must adhere to in pre-planning are:

  • Do we have an emergency evacuation plan?
  • Have we considered everyone in our PEEP?
  • Do we have the correct evacuation equipment which can ensure everyone’s safety?
  • Do we have a trained, incident response team?
  • Do we have regular evacuation drills to check our procedures?

Evacuation of tall buildings
In his presentation at Health & Safety Scotland, Evac+Chair's Gary Hicks told delegates how to prepare for evacuating tall buildings - and why it needs to be more coordinated than in regular-sized buildings. Gary is based in the Middle East, which is home to some of the world's tallest buildings.

There are a number of reasons as to why a tall building would be evacuated including: fire alarm instruction, fire, terrorist incident, earthquake, flood, total electrical failure, vandalism and building management instruction.

In the case of fire, Gary explained that the fire alarm would be silenced to avoid upsetting people throughout the building. Every lift then drops to zero or the next available floor. A fire detection system confirms that the lifts have been stopped, and someone is sent in to check if there is a real fire. Of course, the lifts are out of operation and there could be 60 or more floors in the building. A fire can escalate quickly, and the time it takes for security to confirm the fire needs to be taken into consideration during the evacuation plan.

Gary highlighted a number of international trends to be aware of so as to make sure we can react quickly to incidents in tall buildings. For example, he said there will be an increase in incidents due to ageing building structures and the fact that more buildings are being constructed to meet only the minimum standards. The growth of 'mixed use' in tall buildings and an ageing population also need to be taken into consideration when planning the evacuation of tall buildings.

"Resilience is a key theme in emergency management - we need to test, test, test!," Gary said.

This not only relates to the testing of fire systems in order to avoid common equipment failings but to the management of the whole building from making on-site personnel aware of how the building is going to function in 'fire mode' to having expert advice readily available and being well-rehearsed in protocol.

Gary then took delegates through the phased evacuation plan of the Burj Khalifa, which has 121 floors. As the lifts cannot be used during evacuation, the building relies on 65 evacuation chairs from Evac+Chair International.

Gary also gave delegates his slant on how terrorism in tall buildings will affect us all.

"Gone are the times when someone is going to fly a plane into a building," he said. "The next terrorist will be a very robust character who is thinking quicker than we are. He is already in our buildings as we failed to do the right recruitment checks and will probably poison us through the water or filtration systems. We need to look at who we recruit and why we recruit."