Ensuring Safety in a New Facility

When college students return to campus during the last weeks of August there will be many new buildings waiting to greet them. Construction crews will have moved on, ceremonies honoring donors will be over, and the new buildings will be ready to educate students and conduct world-class research. But before the doors open, staff and faculty need to be trained on the unique safety features of the new building.

Those of us in the fire and life safety field need to spend the summer preparing new fire and life safety plans for these buildings. Staff and faculty may move from one part of campus to another, but they will need to be trained on new fire and life safety plans for the new facility that may be very different than the building from which they have relocated.

Know the Way Out

A few items that must be included involve egress systems, alarm systems, sprinkler systems, and fire and emergency response. New buildings may have multiple floors. Access and egress for students, visitors, and staff with disabilities will require use of elevators, but in a fire scenario all occupants will need to know where horizontal exits or areas of refuge are located in lieu of evacuating disabled occupants from the building.

Facilities built this year may have smoke evacuation systems and sprinkler systems built into them — again, new features that are not present in many older campus buildings. Faculty and staff will need basic instruction on how these systems operate. Their training will need to be focused on what they can place on ceilings, walls, and near supply and exhaust vents so that they don’t compromise these systems. The same can be said for sprinklers: instructors and other staff members need to know where they can place shelves, banners, flags, and posters so they won’t disrupt the spray pattern of sprinkler heads.

Know How Systems Operate

Staff members in new buildings should also be shown the location of sprinkler risers, gas supply shutoffs, main water valves, and electrical boxes. They may not be charged with shutting these systems down, but they may need to assist emergency crews and show them where these items are located. In large-scale disasters they may need to shut off these systems. Therefore, training should be provided on how and when to do so.

The fire alarm system may sound very different in a new building compared to an older facility. Older buildings may just have bells. Today, schools have horns, strobes, and voice annunciation systems. Employees should know what the system sounds like before school opens. They should clearly understand any voice annunciation systems and who has the ability and authority to override prerecorded messages and speak directly into the system. Pre-scripted messages should be developed and used only by those trained to do so. Consult you institution’s policy — does it even address who can use these systems? If there are no policies in place, develop them prior to training staff in new buildings.

Know Who Is Coming… and When
New facilities may not be built in the same location as existing buildings; this may impact emergency response times to a new facility. Have fire, police, and ambulance providers estimate what the response times will be to the new facility. Give these times to staff members in the building. This will eliminate fears and questions if they know the response time has increased by even two or three minutes. At the same time, give building tours to responding emergency crews. Let them learn what part of the building first-in crews should respond to. Show them the same utility and system features you showed your staff. Between emergency crews and staff, you will have a team in place to help shut down systems as needed. Also, talk to emergency crews about chemical storage and other hazardous areas. They can make notes and pass this information along to other crews that may not normally respond to the building.

In brief, all staff and faculty members should be trained on alarm system functions (activation, sound), sprinkler system functions (obstructions), and egress components (areas of refuge, fire doors). All staff, faculty, and responders should be trained on utility shutdown locations (water, gas, electric), emergency responder information (response times and locations), and special hazards in or near the building (chemical storage, exterior hazards, railroad tracks, highways).

This is just a brief list of components. Look carefully at your new facility or walk it with the management team and first responders to determine the full list of training elements.

Mike Halligan
is the associate director of Environmental Health and Safety at the University of Utah and is responsible for Fire Prevention and Special Events Life Safety. He frequently speaks about performance-based code solutions for campus building projects, is recognized as an expert on residence hall fire safety programs, and conducts school fire prevention program audits/strategic planning. He can be reached at 801/585-9327 or at [email protected].

About the Author

Mike Halligan is the President of Higher Education Safety, a consulting group specializing in fire prevention program audits, strategic planning, training and education programs and third party plan review and occupancy inspections. He retired after twenty six years as the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management at the University of Utah. He frequently speaks and is a recognized expert on residence hall/student housing fire safety and large scale special event planning. He also works with corporate clients to integrate products into the campus environment that promote safety and security.