AUST – Emergency Plan advises most emergency response procedures under AS 3745-2010 – Planning for emergencies in buildings include the expectation that in an emergency, (and if safe to do so), the Chief Warden will proceed to the master emergency control point and take control of the emergency, and utilise the sound and intercom systems. But what if a building, the Chief Warden and the master emergency control point are destined to be a bad fit?

The decision on the location of the master emergency control point is based upon the systems and pathways of travel in a building. If the building has an sound and intercom system, it is logical to make the sound and intercom system panel the master emergency control point . Using the sound and intercom system panel, the Chief Warden can take control of the emergency by communicating with wardens on the affected floors via the Warden Intercommunication Phones (WIP). Appropriate action can be taken with the Public Address System and the evacuation tones functions of the sound and intercom system as appropriate.

Theoretically, a logical choice for an emergency response procedure.

However, all too often, particularly in older buildings, the sound and intercom system is located in a less than desirable place, such as a basement level. On occasion, circumstances such as restricted access to the basement or key-lock secured fire control rooms conspire to make it take longer to get to the sound and intercom system.

Add to this the circumstances of the Chief Warden. In the past, Chief Wardens were often selected on the basis of who would volunteer instead of who was most suitable, and this has sometimes led to the appointment of Chief Wardens who work on a floor many levels above the sound and intercom system.

A recent case study involved a 12 storey city building with an sound and intercom system in a basement car park fire control room and a Chief Warden on the 6th floor. Access to the basement was by swipe card for both the lift and a roller shutter door, and a key was needed for the fire control room. If the Chief Warden heard the sound and intercom system system activate, the Chief Warden would have had to walk down 6 flights of stairs (as the emergency response procedures prohibits the use of the lifts in what could well be a fire situation), walk around to the car park roller shutter, swipe the card, walk down the ramp, unlock the fire control room and take control of the emergency at the sound and intercom system panel.

Assuming the Chief Warden brought all the necessary keys and that is was safe to enter the basement, by the time the Chief Warden arrived, the sound and intercom system would have already automatically escalated the emergency to evacuate on the affected floor, the two floors above and the floor below, and involved more floors in the alarm event. The wardens on these floors would have commenced evacuation and (with no one yet at the sound and intercom system panel to communicate with on the WIP) may well have left the floor. When the Chief Warden does attempt to communicate with these floors no one would have been on the floor to answer.

Under these circumstances, it could be argued that the Chief Warden is not in a position to take control. If there was a reason to evacuate that could be confirmed by the wardens of affected floor, the Chief Warden would not receive and act on this information in a timely fashion. If the floor wardens could confirm to the Chief Warden that there was no reason to evacuate these floors, the Chief Warden could not decide to prevent the evacuation needlessly escalating.

In this situation there are a number of possible improvements to the performance of the Emergency Response Procedures (ERP):

1. Appoint a Chief Warden on the ground floor.

The new AS 3745 – 2010 places extra responsibility on the Emergency Planning Committee to select a suitable Chief Warden. If a Chief Warden located on the 6th floor cannot perform their duties satisfactorily (under the circumstances outlined), the Emergency Planning Committee should appoint someone whose location is suitable.

2. Relocate or duplicate the sound and intercom system on the ground floor. While a once off expense would be incurred and a suitable location may be difficult to spare, this would overcome several access and safety issues for the Chief Warden.

3. Design an emergency response procedure that does not rely on the sound and intercom system. If the time between alarm initiation and the Chief Warden accessing the sound and intercom system panel cannot be appropriately reduced, the wardens should be trained to act without control from the Chief Warden. This action might be to initiate evacuation despite no identifiably clear and present danger and without consulting with the Chief Warden. While a default evacuation may not be applicable in all circumstances, the automatic commencement of the sound and intercom system would almost always mean that an evacuation is the appropriate default action.

If the Emergency Planning Committee for the facility concluded that this last action was the best alternative, it should also consider reducing the time delay between alert tone and evacuate tone, to zero seconds. There is no point in delaying an inevitable evacuation, and giving the threat more time to develop. Immediate action would seem more prudent.

The master emergency control point, Chief Warden and emergency response procedures should be carefully selected to ensure they ensure optimal emergency response outcomes, and enhance the safety of the occupants.