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Emergency planning for high-rise buildings.

Emergencies such as fires, bomb scares and earthquake present special dangers for high-rise buildings. The large size of the building and the number of employees or tenants within the high-rise increase the building's vulnerability when disaster strikes and present special challenges for risk managers. A coordinated emergency-response plan that identifies potential risks and outlines the best response is perhaps the most important step risk managers can take to protect the occupants of high-rises during emergencies.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), there are approximately 16,000 to 20,000 fires in high-rise buildings each year. This represents 2 to 4 percent of all building fires.

These fires are associated with 80 to 90 civilian deaths, 800 to 900 injuries and $100 million to $200 million in direct property damage. Most of these fires take place in apartment buildings. Very few high-rise building fires spread beyond the room or floor where the fire first starts because many high-rise buildings have sprinklers, smoke detectors and fire-resistive construction. Even though there are comprehensive requirements for fire protection systems in new and existing high rises, differences exist in building codes and safety standards.

Disaster research studies have identified organized planning as the most important element in successfully aiding victims in high-rise buildings. Such planning needs to be coordinated between the building's internal systems, such as safety controls and employee training, and community emergency-response agencies that will be called to the building during an emergency. Furthermore, the local police and fire departments, emergency medical service and other agencies should be consulted before an emergency occurs so that their needs can be addressed and any potential response obstacles can be eliminated.

Automatic and manually activated fire alarm systems should have a direct line to the local fire department through a central station approved by NFPA standards. Fire plans incorporating evacuation procedures should be developed with the assistance of qualified fire and safety managers or engineers. These plans should include methods for assignment and notification of the appropriate personnel; written instructions about alarm systems operation and methods for containing the fire; information on where fire-fighting equipment is located and specifications about evacuation routes and procedures. They should also address any factors that are unique to the building or local situation, and disaster instructions should be posted throughout the building and made available to personnel working in the building. Risk managers who are responsible for disaster planning must provide adequate resources for emergency response training for employees, demand that the personnel responsible for installing and maintaining emergency systems be properly certified and support building managers in evacuation planning and drills.

Because most people responding to disasters involving high-rise buildings have not had prior experience with such disasters, there is a tendency to see the situation and the response it requires as unique. Since an immediate response to victims is vital, well-rehearsed disaster plans and drills can give emergency personnel enough familiarity with a building to take away potential uncertainty about the best course of action.

Although definitions vary about which buildings should be considered high rises, most use the term to describe buildings more than seven stories or 75 feet high. The U.S. Fire Administration's National Fire Incident Reporting System defines four categories of high-rise buildings: 8 to 12 stories high; 13 to 24 stories; 25 to 49 stories and 50 or more stories high. The NFPA's Life Safety Code 101 requires the following safety devices in all high-rise buildings: a supervised automatic sprinkler system; a Class I standpipe system; a fire alarm system with an approved emergency voice and alarm communication system; emergency lighting; standby power and a central control station.

Creating a Plan

A key element in emergency planning is assessing potential hazards in accordance with state and local building codes as well as policies and procedures of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This basic, ongoing risk management technique is important to prevent disasters and to mitigate any damage should an emergency take place. For an adequate and useful plan to be adopted, certain conditions must prevail. The emergency response plan should be comprehensive, yet simple enough for every employee to understand easily. A complicated plan that cannot be understood when it matters most is of absolutely no value. Similarly, the plan should be presented in every language spoken within the workforce. Carefully review the written instructions for duties to be performed at each subordinate level.

For example, a response scenario following an earthquake will assume anticipated actions for various events and conditions. The scenario should include testing, assessing or practicing the following activities: emergency operations center mobilization and security; evacuation route planning; search and rescue; emergency and backup communications; fire management and evaluation; emergency personnel deployment; utilities emergency response and disseminating any warnings.

Exercises such as the earthquake scenario are generally acknowledged to be the best form of emergency management training for high-rise buildings. The focus should be on developing progressive high-rise exercise programs for different situations that can be tested in a full-scale exercise. Most of the steps in developing the plan will require risk managers to develop, conduct, evaluate and implement follow-up exercises for different scenarios that will be part of a comprehensive emergency management program. Operational responsibility for implementing the plans must be placed in the hands of competent leaders. Uncertain or indefinite commands in time of emergency will go unheeded and could increase the emergency's danger or damage. Unless people know how to carry out the plan, and can convey instructions clearly, the plan will fall apart.

The entire plan should be supported by an annual training schedule. Employees should be instructed when and how to use simple fire extinguishing equipment. Training equipment must be maintained in good working condition, and employees should also be trained how to judge if a fire is too large to attempt to extinguish. The building's audio and visual alarm systems must be maintained and tested regularly. If a private company is used to provide alarm services, verify the creditability of the company carefully and insist on appropriate documentation of credentials and services the company will provide.

With the arrival of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), a prudent risk manager will conduct a complete review of his or her emergency safety program and equipment to ensure compliance with ADA requirements. Of particular importance are emergency programs that require substantial procedural modifications to accommodate individuals with disabilities. For example, risk managers should formulate a compliance team and instruct these individuals in ADA requirements; develop a facilities compliance evaluation or hire an architect to identify potential areas where modifications are required and develop a written plan of action with specific dates and hold builders accountable for achieving ADA compliance. Safety signs, alarm systems and related equipment that may not assist individuals with particular disabilities should be identified and replaced. For example, someone with a hearing impediment may not be able to hear a fire alarm, and visual warning signals will have to be installed.

Testing the Plan

Disaster preparedness and emergency response planning programs cannot be maintained without regular testing. Risk managers in high-rise buildings must develop guidelines for effective drills, certify that the staff can operate the appropriate emergency systems and provide extensive communication and evaluation after a drill to correct any deficiencies.

Studies show that individuals and emergency-response teams from each floor, within the building should be trained in advance to help evacuate the building and to assist the emergency victims appropriately. Effective emergency testing combines scheduled and unannounced drills designed to make sure all personnel know their roles in implementing response plans during disasters. For example, employees must know how to evacuate the building safely without outside help. Experience shows that many times, if emergency plans are not in place, heavy traffic patterns such as people exiting from different floors) mean most people will be entering the stairwells almost simultaneously.

During a fire, the normal procedure is to initially evacuate the fire floor and those floors immediately above and below the fire floor. Once the fire floor is evacuated, the high-rise fire brigade or community fire department can decide to evacuate another floor, or may decide the safest course of action is to have handicapped individuals remain in the building stairwells. Unfortunately, many high-rise buildings are not even equipped with sprinklers, the most essential fire safety system. In the absence of local retrofit legislation, building risk managers must develop programs so that building personnel in charge of emergency response are well trained in fire response, evacuation and safety systems.

Other Emergencies

Another controversial factor is the method of smoke control in high-rise buildings because there are inconsistencies in different fire codes for unprotected vertical openings. These inconsistencies must be eliminated for better smoke control. The 1994 Uniform Building Code calls for mechanical smoke controls, but the 1994 Life Safety Code and the 1993 National Building Code do not mandate such systems in high-rise buildings protected by sprinklers. Because fires produce smoke, risk managers must address smoke concerns by recommending installation and retrofitting of mechanical air conditioning and ventilation systems.

According to NFPA, systems for controlling smoke movement in a building can generally be divided into shaft protection and floor protection systems. In high-rise structures, the system should be designed to inhibit the flow of smoke into exit passageways and other open areas. Smoke control systems should be activated as soon as possible during fire emergencies to maintain the environment in the areas being evacuated.

Elevator use in high-rise evacuations has been a subject of extensive research in the 1990s. In 1992 the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recommended that elevator design for high-rise buildings include actions of the potential effect of water on equipment that causes electrical shorts. Additional research by NIST is refining methods in the use of elevators during the evacuation of high-rise buildings. During an earthquake, all elevators are returned to ground level and taken out of service until it is determined that they are safe to operate.

Planning for high-rise disasters must also encompass terrorist attacks. The key point here is that high-rise buildings may become isolated during a hostage situation, and therefore need to be self-sufficient for long periods of time. In the planning process it is necessary to break the entire emergency scenario down into parts so the emergency becomes manageable.

In summary, planning and training have been shown to be successful in high-rise emergency response management, but there still is much more to be accomplished. This is a key component for risk managers in their leadership role in managing high-rise buildings.

Daniel E. Della-Giustina is a professor and chairman of the Department of Safety and Environmental Managemen at West Virginia University in Morgantown, WV.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Risk Management Society Publishing, Inc.
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Author:Della-Giustina, Daniel E.
Publication:Risk Management
Date:Apr 1, 1995
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