“Putting out a fire” is a common phrase used by businesspeople every day. But what if the fire is more than a metaphor? Do you know what to do to lessen the likelihood of an office fire breaking out — and how to react if one does?
According to the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA), there were more than 98,000 non-residential building fires in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available. Many of them were in small offices and buildings. Estimated property loss from these blazes was $2.6 billion.
A 5-year NFPA analysis found that:
- Most “business and mercantile” fires occurred when the premises were less populated. One-third of the fires (31 percent) occurred between 7:00 pm and 7:00 am, but created two-thirds (67 percent) of the direct property damage. Nineteen percent occurred on weekends and created 31 percent of the damage. A lot of fires also broke out between noon and 2:00 pm.
- Twenty-nine percent of commercial blazes were caused by cooking equipment and resulted in 6 percent of the direct property damage; 22 percent began in the kitchen or cooking area, causing just one percent of direct damage.
- The most damaging fires started in an office. Though only 12 percent of business fires began in this location, they caused the most direct property damage (24 percent).
“Staples’ studies show that a majority of employees don’t feel their employers are prepared for any kind of emergency, including fires,” says Bob Risk, the company’s national sales manager for safety. “The truth is, most are, but they haven’t communicated their fire prevention plan well to employees.”
What do you — and your employees — need to know to lower the odds that your office becomes another statistic? It starts with the four P’s of fire prevention: plan, procure, practice and prevent.
“No matter the size of the office or the number of employees, someone should be designated as the safety officer,” says Ernest Grant, chairman of the board of the NFPA. This person leads the creation and execution of the emergency response plan, which includes:
- Escape Routes and Meeting Places: Determine and mark the fastest and safest paths to safety. Post maps (with “you are here” marks) in breakrooms and near exits — which should be clearly indicated with signs. Put up reminders that elevators cannot be used during most emergencies. Check emergency lighting in stairwells and make sure they aren’t used as storage areas. Create a procedure for evacuating employees and patrons with special needs, especially if the escape route includes stairs. Select a meeting place far enough away from the building to allow full access to the property by firefighters and other emergency personnel.
- Emergency Procedures: Make sure employees know that the safety officer is in charge during emergencies. Identify by name and title (whenever possible) the people responsible for contacting the fire department, accounting for employees at the meeting place and assisting emergency personnel with information on equipment or chemicals housed in the building. Keep an up-to-date list of emergency contact information. Outline who notifies the next of kin of injured parties, and designate one person to notify emergency responders of people still in the office or unaccounted for.
There are a few specific items you need for fire safety, such as fire extinguishers and smoke alarms — but most commercial buildings are required to have these items installed to meet local building codes. Check with your fire marshal to learn the requirements for your municipality. Test alarms and check extinguisher charges each month; replace/recharge immediately when indicated.
Additional emergency supplies include a stocked first aid kit, bottled water and flashlights. “One company we work with supplies every one of their employees with an escape mask,” Risk notes. “That’s important since most people don’t succumb to the fire or the heat, but to smoke inhalation.”
The safety officer also schedules regular fire prevention trainings, refreshers and drills. “When you have a fire or another emergency, it’s an extremely scary, confusing and rushed situation — and many people don’t operate well that way. So it’s almost like you need to be in muscle memory.”
Hold drills and review procedures frequently, and include emergency response information in new employee orientation. Play the alarm to make sure employees know what it sounds like — it can be a beep, a horn and/or an overhead announcement — and what to do when they hear it. Inspect nuisance alarms (like those false alarms from burning popcorn in the microwave) so employees don’t start ignoring the sound. Include real-time shutting down of critical equipment if required by law or regulation in the event of an emergency. Run contests to see how quickly employees can exit their workspace, reminding them that personal items may need to be left behind. Ask the fire department to conduct periodic trainings for all employees on how to use a fire extinguisher.
Grant, who’s also outreach coordinator for the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center in Chapel Hill, offers these tips for lowering the risk of fire in the first place:
- Follow manufacturers’ recommendations for maximum volt/wattage load for surge protectors, power strips and adapters, and ask your electrician to periodically inspect these items and outlets for potential overload
- Replace frayed power cords; never run them under rugs or carpeting, use cord protectors instead
- Unplug appliances (coffeemakers, microwaves) and other equipment not in use at the end of the day and over the weekend
- Replace appliances that feel warm or hot to touch
- Ask the fire marshal to inspect chemical and equipment storage areas periodically to ensure proper ventilation and stowage
- Store hazardous materials according to manufacturers’ instructions and OSHA regulations. Clearly mark these items to help emergency personnel identify and stabilize them
- Don’t prop fire doors open or block exits with furniture or boxes
- Don’t allow paper and other trash to accumulate outside of garbage or recycling receptacles, and never store this material near hot equipment, electrical outlets or the smoking areas
- Don’t permit employees to burn candles, scented oils, etc., even in their personal work areas
Following the four P’s is the best way to protect your business and your employees. “Having an evacuation plan and practicing a fire drill will ensure that employees know what to do in case of a real fire emergency,” says Bill Mace, who oversees education and outreach for the Seattle Fire Department.
Adds Grant: “This prevents confusion and minimizes the possibility of someone sustaining an injury.”
After all those fire drills in school, too many of us take fire prevention and safety for granted. That’s why it’s crucial for business owners, office managers and safety officers to set the right tone, Risk says. “If you don’t take it seriously, your employees won’t either. I always say, ‘It’s a lot easier to prepare for an emergency than to explain why you didn’t.”
Note: Don’t disregard professional fire prevention and emergency preparedness advice, or delay seeking it, because of what you read here. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional consultation by fire marshals, insurance agents and others; it is provided “as is” without any representations or warranties, express or implied. Always consult the fire marshal or your insurer if you have specific questions about any fire safety matter.