By Kim Arnott
When the fire alarm sounds in your building, occupants likely know what to do. They know the fire evacuation routes, and have been taught to take the stairs, feel for warm doors and crawl through smoky corridors. But do they know what to do in the case of a tornado warning? A power failure? A chemical spill? Although fire procedures are an essential and legally mandated part of any building’s safety plan, today’s more inclusive strategies also address ways to keep building occupants and property safe in the event of emergencies.
With regular fire drills providing practice, occupants typically know how to safely vacate buildings. That comes in handy in the case of bomb threats or other emergencies that require people to evacuate. But Bill Senft, head of the Building Systems Technician program at Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology, says hazards that require people to stay put also need to be planned for. "Lockdowns are something we’re seeing more of," he says. "Buildings need a lockdown plan, plus regular drills to make sure everyone is aware of the procedures."
From severe weather to terrorist threats, a good safety plan covers the range of possible emergencies building occupants might face. Even issues such as pandemics, which require managing building operations through ongoing difficulties, can be planned for with the help of resources such as the "Pandemic Planning Guide for Commercial Buildings" and property manager toolkit offered through the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of Canada at www.bomacanada-pandemic.ca.
However, a safety plan needs to be more than simply a written document stored on a dusty shelf, emphasizes Mark Bell, a working property manager and instructor of the "Property Maintenance and Risk Management" course with the Real Estate Institute of Canada (REIC). The building’s safety plan must be reviewed regularly, with on-site building staff, occupants and local authorities. "Safety plans should be treated as living documents and should be reviewed with any facility or business change," adds Senft, who suggests assigning the task of reviewing plans to someone’s specific portfolio, along with a regular review schedule.
Accurate and up-to-date information might make the difference between life and death for building occupants with special needs. It’s essential that safety plans clearly outline where individuals with mobility issues in the building are located, and how they will be assisted in the case of an emergency. For example, Senft notes, an individual in a wheelchair may need two people specifically assigned to help them down stairs in case of an evacuation that makes elevators unavailable.
Once an updated safety plan is in place, it’s crucial to communicate it to building occupants. Regular communication about the safety plan with building occupants and staff, as well as posting of the information in common areas can help spread the word. However, drills and regular meetings with occupants and floor captains should be part of your overall plan to ensure everyone is familiar with the plan and any changes.
In addition to an annual fire drill, Terri Porkolab, a professional facility management consultant and member of BOMA Ottawa’s Security and Life Safety committee suggests undertaking an annual "tabletop" exercise. Gather all stakeholders—from tenant representatives and health and safety committee representatives, to building engineers or technicians—in one room, then verbally walk through an emergency scenario. Such an exercise, she says, will help highlight elements that might be missing from your safety plan.
Municipal planning authorities and fire departments, local service providers and occupational health and safety legislation can provide excellent resources when updating a building safety plan. An extensive model fire safety plan is available from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. A number of private consulting firms who specialize in developing emergency and fire safety plans can also be contracted to help develop detailed building safety plans. Additionally, the National Fire Code of Canada provides minimum safety requirements for buildings and structures, and addresses fire protection in the ongoing operation of buildings and facilities. However, most provinces set their own guidelines with NFC codes used as a basis. Be sure to check with your local government to ensure your safety plans meet the minimum guidelines.