Evacuation Planning: A Matter of Life and Death

June 17, 2002
Are your employees ready to leave the building in the worst of circumstances? If not, your planning should start here.

Emergencies, both inside and outside your facility, may require evacuations to protect your personnel. Being capable of promptly initiating an evacuation, ensuring that occupants take appropriate actions during the evacuation and being able to account for people after an evacuation may make the difference between life and death for the people in your facility.

The design of your building plays an important role in evacuation capabilities. For the purpose of this article, we'll assume you are past the design stage and have to make the best of your current structure(s).

An effective evacuation begins with a well-prepared plan. The planning process should begin with a risk assessment. This will help you identify what types of emergencies both inside and outside your facility might require evacuation or other emergency response actions. All foreseeable events should be considered. The probability of the event occurring and the severity of its impact should be used to prioritize preparation efforts.

Just to prime your thought processes, these are a few common events that may require an evacuation:

  • Fires
  • Explosions
  • Chemical releases
  • Power outages
  • Severe weather

Evacuations should be planned in levels. Some emergencies may require the evacuation of only a small area near the problem, others might require the entire building be evacuated and even larger emergencies might require the entire site be evacuated.

Depending upon the size and layout of your facility, your planning should also include provisions for sheltering in place. This concept involves getting people out of the immediate area of the emergency but not all the way out of the building. Shelter in place is also required if critical operations cannot be left immediately. For example, such operations include the control room at a power generation or chemical plant, or a surgical suite in a hospital. In this type of area, the facility must be designed to protect the occupants while they perform their duties. For example, the design features of a chemical plant control building such as location, construction, and air handling and filtering systems are intended to provide the extra time necessary to allow the safe shutdown of processes prior to evacuation.


Communications during an emergency must motivate people to take action. Overcoming apathy is a more pressing concern than worrying about causing panic. Most people have had at least a few experiences with false fire alarms. People also tend to trust their own senses as the best source of information. This means that if there is no visible smoke or fire, people tend to doubt the fire alarm. This problem can become more severe in non-fire emergencies such as hazardous chemical spills. The vapors from a spill may often be invisible yet still create a hazard to occupants.

I saw this human behavior tendency demonstrated with a group that should know better - fire instructors. Many years ago, while I was attending a large conference for fire instructors, the fire alarm in the hotel began to alarm. The appropriate action would have been to evacuate the building but the group standing outside the hotel was quite small. The rest of the occupants' responses ranged from completely ignoring the alarm to searching for the fire without benefit of protective clothing and equipment. We found out later as the local fire department arrived that the alarm was not false; the kitchen was on fire.

In another instance, workers in a manufacturing facility continued to operate a machine in spite of the fact the machine next to theirs was on fire. When we asked the workers why they hadn't evacuated immediately, they said the smoke wasn't that bad and they wanted to "catch up on their quota." The "not bad" condition they were describing was smoke filling the area from a 30-foot ceiling down to about 10 feet above the floor in a large manufacturing area.

The essential elements of communicating about emergencies include early detection of the problem, methods for reporting emergencies internally and externally, procedures for initiating an evacauation and providing information to those that must be evacuated.

Communication about the emergency should be made initially to notify occupants of the need to evacuate. This is most often handled by the alarm devices of the fire alarm. Typically this is a combination of bells or horns and lights. While this alerts occupants, it does not provide any specific information. This initial alarm should be followed immediately by an announcement that provides specific information about the emergency and instructs people on what action they should take. The verbal system should also be used for periodic updates on the situation if the original emergency did not require a complete evacuation. A system for communicating that the emergency is over and that personnel may return to the building should also be planned.

All employees should know how to report emergencies within the facility and to outside response groups. All phones should be posted with emergency numbers. In areas covered by the standard 911 number, this is somewhat less critical than it used to be but it is still important. Under the stress of an emergency, people may forget the correct phone number. Dialing can also be an issue. For example, if you need to dail 9 to get an outside telephone line, the stickers on your phones should indicate 9-911 as the emergency number.

Exit routes should be planned to include at least two ways out from all major areas. The two ways out concept is used to ensure that at least one exit will not be blocked by the emergency. There is no guarantee that this will be the case under all possible emergency situations, but even if there were four or six potential exit paths, there would still not be a complete guarantee.

Exit routes may be shown on diagrams to aid occupants in determining the best method for escape. Diagrams are most useful in buildings occupied by the public where the people may not be familiar with the layout of the building. I'm sure most of you have noticed the diagrams on the inside of hotel room doors. In this context they are helpful because the typical occupant is unfamiliar with the facility. In facilities with primarily employee occupants, diagrams add little to the effectiveness of evacuation plans. Employees should be familiar with at least two exits from their normal work area.

Outside Assembly

Once occupants are out of the building, they must be capable of reaching a safe area away from the building. Where people should go after they are outside is often overlooked in evacuation planning. Occupants leaving a manufacturing facility through doors within a fenced back area, for example, must be provided with a path to the front of the building.

An outside area for assembling occupants after an evacuation should be designated as part of the planning process. These areas are where head counts will be completed. Personnel should be held in these areas so that additional information can be provided easily. Assembly areas should be far enough from the building to ensure the safety of personnel and should not block access for emergency responders. Plans should include an alternate assembly area in case the primary area is affected by the emergency.

Personnel must be accounted for after an evacuation so that we can determine if people are missing or not. The system we all became familiar with in school works reasonably well in other settings as well. In school, our teacher was responsible for counting the individual class members and reporting any missing students up the organizational chain. In work environments, we can use the first level supervisor in a similar way. They confirm that all their people are out of the building or identify who is missing. This information should be provided to the fire department when they arrive.

Employees tend to be the easiest group when considering accounting for people. The transient groups of people are much more challenging. These typically include visitors, outside contractors and vendors, and employees from other sites. A system should be in place to monitor the arrival and departure of all people in the facility. This becomes most difficult with individuals for whom you have provided ready access for your own convenience such as the people who service your vending machines. These individuals often come and go from your facility without direct supervision or having to sign in and out anywhere.

Keeping track of all personnel in a public building is not practical. We cannot develop a workable system that tracks the public in a reliable way. In these environments, such as restaurants and retail establishments, we do still need to be able to account for our employees.


Employee training is an important part of preparing for emergencies. All employees should receive some training when they initially begin work, when they change work areas within your organization, when procedures and/or hazards change and periodically during their employment. Personnel who have specific responsibilities under the plan will require additional training on these tasks. For example, you may want to assign a person in each major area of you facility as an evacuation assistant. This person would help ensure that people in the area know there is an emergency and that they take the appropriate action. Your regular organizational leadership must be trained to manage emergency situations effectively.

Management and supervision of emergencies will normally be done within the regular management hierarchy unless you have an in-house emergency response team. Effective command and control procedures must be part of your emergency plan.

No evacuation planning effort is complete without testing. All emergency plans should be tested periodically. A fire drill is the only way to get a realistic view of how your plan will work.

Fire drills can be announced in advance or conducted without notice. If you have just developed a new plan, an announced drill is a good place to start. Once any difficulties with the plan have been worked out, then unannounced drills are a better test. You may also consider inviting local public response groups such as the fire department and emergency medical services to participate in a drill once you feel comfortable about your performance.

About the author: Craig Schroll is a Certified Safety Professional and Certified Environmental Trainer. He has over 30 years experience in safety and loss control activities. Craig is a frequent conference speaker, author, and seminar leader. He founded FIRECON in 1980 with the mission of helping clients prevent, plan for, and control emergencies. He can be reached at 717-354-2411 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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