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Work Place Safety Assessors advise that observing trial evacuations (evacuation exercise) from facilities there has been plenty of opportunity to witness interesting incidents. ‘Facilities’ can refer to a wide range of buildings such as office blocks, factories, warehouses, hotels and schools.  Many of these incidents are revealing, in that the evacuations were stressful,  inspiring or educational.

Trial evacuations are valuable for working out if emergency response equipment works the way it is supposed to and if people know how to use it. Here are some good examples:

  • In a school with an EWIS (SSIS) system, the wardens were asked to use the Warden Intercommunication Point phones. At each phone in one of the buildings the wardens found they could neither hear nor speak to the Chief Warden. It was such a simple issue that could have been a disaster in a real emergency. The WIP phones had not been tested as required by the service company. The contract with the service company was reviewed in accordance with essential safety measure obligations:  the WIP test frequency confirmed; tests performed; defects rectified.
  • In an office building, occupants entered the fire stairs from upper floors. They filed past the exit door from the fire stairs on the ground floor exit path because the exit sign was not lit (and because they had not been in the stairs before). They soon realised they had gone too far and could not exit the building. While the congestion was soon overcome when one person was brave enough to open the ground floor exit door, the time taken to evacuate was significantly increased.  The exit sign was fixed, an extra sign was installed informing occupants to exit ‘here’ and many occupants learned where to exit the fire stairs.  For some trial evacuations it is good to have the fire service involved. In some states this is mandatory. They may agree to attend as a training exercise, to become more familiar with the facility or to get to know key personnel. On some occasions the fire services have been an unexpected attendee at trial evacuations:
  • While evacuating a large office tower, the occupants were steadily progressing towards the assembly area when a fire truck arrived. It seemed that an occupant, who was unclear that the evacuation was an exercise, had called 000 to report the evacuation.  The fire service was very understanding, confirmed that the evacuation were an exercise and observed the completion of the exercise. Current requirements of AS 3745-2010 ‘Planning for emergencies in facilities’ include annual briefings of occupants, which increases their familiarity with evacuation procedures.
  • A Chief Warden commenced an evacuation exercise by using the Occupant Warning System. Although the fire panel was monitored (to alert the fire services if an alarm occurs), using the OWS does initiate the fire alarm or call the fire services. As she watched the panel, a simultaneous alarm occurred in the building, engaging the fire panel and calling the fire services. The fire services arrived, investigated the alarm and confirmed the alarm was unwanted. They even confirmed that the way the OWS had been used would not have activated the alarm.  This was a very unusual occurrence that, needless to say, left the Chief Warden nonplussed. It seems that either the fire alarm system had a curiously timed fault or that the movement of a significant number of people had generated sufficient dust to cause a detector to alarm. The service company was unable to explain.

For each story there is some learning, some improvement, some discovery of inadequacy that reinforces the value of trial evacuations that can provide incredible lessons that eventually save many lives.