Preventing disasters is a top priority for safety professionals at schools and universities, but it is equally important to have a well-developed evacuation plan that can be put into action at a moment's notice. The planning must take into account all conceivable disasters, including acts of terrorism, gas leaks, chemical spills, collapses, explosions, bomb threats, tornadoes and even acts of violence.
A college or university is like a small city — or a collection of small cities — with libraries, theaters, classrooms, offices, residences, swimming pools, water systems, restaurants, laboratories and daycare centers. Even some elementary and secondary schools may have a diverse array of facilities. The buildings on these campuses typically have different ages and are in different condition; planners need to take these characteristics into account as they devise evacuation plans.
All school buildings should have an effective way to evacuate occupants systematically, safely and quickly. Building engineers, and security and maintenance workers should receive proper training in appropriate responses. In addition, all faculty, staff and students should be notified in writing. They should report emergencies promptly, respond to designated alarms, and initiate safety procedures immediately to safeguard life until first responders arrive.
An evacuation plan should be part of an institution's comprehensive fire-safety plan, which should be reviewed and approved by a local fire department or other emergency responders. It should specify a chain of command, beginning with the campus administration and faculty. Someone trained to carry out an evacuation also should be available after normal business hours when the campus remains partially occupied.
Some steps to follow:
Set up a fully equipped emergency command station. Designate a command post in a safe, convenient location where those in charge will coordinate activities during an emergency. Make sure to prominently display the emergency telephone numbers for the fire department, police department, emergency medical services and other first responders in the command post. The command post should have access to an up-to-date list of people on campus who are physically disabled and their regular work locations (building, floor and area). A list of people trained and qualified as paramedics, emergency medical technicians or first-aid providers also should be available.
An information kit should be available for use by the arriving emergency service officers in charge. It should give detailed information about a campus, including an up-to-date, easy-to-read architectural drawing of each building floor and the location of all utilities, equipment and access routes. The kit also should provide cell phones, firefighter service-elevator keys, window-lock keys, and keys for access to the building's main utilities.
Organize and train an early-stage emergency response team. The first moments of an emergency can be crucial in preventing a manageable problem from getting out of control. Administrators creating a response team should select members based on their experience, capabilities, job performance and willingness to serve. Look for volunteer firefighters, or employees with police or military experience.
Team members should be assigned to respond to the emergency, assist in evacuation, provide vital information via radio to the people in charge, and help contain the emergency or fire, if possible. They also can provide pertinent information and direction to first responders, such as the exact location and extent of the emergency. They should report back to the command station after the completion of their assignments.
Provide safety information and training. Life-safety information can be provided during semi-annual fire drills, in periodic handouts and on a campus intranet site. Make sure emergency team members and others are trained in detail about what to do and what to avoid in case of fire.
Team members should be aware of safe and unsafe conditions on a campus. They should verify that self-closing doors are functioning properly and not locked illegally. They should check that exit signs are lighted and in good condition, that proper housekeeping exists, and that aisles, corridors and passageways are clear and unobstructed, ready for immediate use. Also, a professional loss-control consultant should inspect every building annually, report any deficiencies and follow up to ensure they are corrected.
All building occupants should be trained to always report directly to their assigned assembly point for a head count. Even if they are in another area of the building at the time of the evacuation, they must report to their group's location to be accounted for. If an evacuation of an entire building becomes necessary, no one should be permitted to return to the building until the officer in command of the emergency has informed the facility manager, or his or her immediate representative that it is safe to re-enter the building.
High-rise buildings. Many campuses have high-rise buildings, so schools may need to hold building-evacuation drills to deal with catastrophes that go beyond the normal scope of events covered in the building's fire-safety plan. Occupants need to completely understand the differences between “routine” fire-evacuation procedures and a non-fire-related, full-building emergency evacuation, and the procedures to be followed for each.
Training in building evacuation must take into account the difference between reacting to an emergency in accordance with the safety plan and the impulse of many building occupants to evacuate as quickly as possible. Planning for a full-building evacuation exercise requires close coordination with building managers and staff members. Planners especially must focus on people who cannot walk long distances or navigate stairs because of physical limitations or other disabilities that may require the assistance of fellow employees or students. All occupants must know in advance the location of special assembly areas away from the building.
Communication is crucial. Inform police, fire and emergency medical services of impending drills, and ask them to attend and assist; also notify all building managers in the area. Schools should post appropriate signs both inside and outside of the building to inform visitors and passersby of a drill. During a drill, assign additional staff and security personnel to monitor and expedite occupant flow out and away from the exits, and to monitor various locations in the stairwells for occupants in need of medical or other assistance. Finally, time the evacuation, and inform the police and fire departments of the completion and results of the drill.
Nolan is the head loss-control engineer with E.G. Bowman Company Inc., New York City, which provides loss control, insurance and safety-engineering services to colleges, schools, businesses, government and nonprofits.