Fire & Life Safety (Focus on Preparation and Prevention)

Emergency Egress Plans

I have been working with many campuses this year in updating their emergency egress plans. As we looked at the best routes out of each building it became apparent that not all egress routes were created equal. Specifically, egress routes can evolve over time just as much as the programs in the rooms. It reminded the team of evaluators that it is important to review existing buildings periodically and determine if changes in use, configuration of corridors or room configurations have an impact on required egress routes. We also found instances where evacuation floor plans gave wrong information based on updates to fire alarm systems, areas of refuge and secondary exits. In other locations egress windows did not meet the clear opening size as required by fire codes.

Emergency Egress Route Plan

The 2015 Fire Code has specific requirements for maintenance of egress routes and the signs posted to graphically show occupants what safety equipment and routes they have available to them. Graphics for emergency evacuation plans should depict, at a minimum, the following: primary and secondary egress routes, fire extinguisher locations, pull station locations (remove from locations without), emergency assembly points (EAP) located away from the building, severe weather shelter location(s) within the building, building name and postal service address, instructions to report fires and other emergencies, areas of refuge, directions to not use elevators and guidelines to assist persons with special needs.

Furniture Layout

Many buildings have wide corridor and lobby areas. Over time, the configuration of furniture can change. It is important to review the placement of new furniture and verify it does not obstruct egress paths. There are creative methods that can be used to help occupants keep furniture in the correct place. For example, varying carpet or tile colors can be used to designate acceptable and unacceptable locations.

Catering and special event operations often set up tables and chairs in corridors and rooms. Pre-approving acceptable setup scenarios will increase compliance with fire code egress requirements.

Egress Windows

Many locations make use of emergency escape and rescue windows in residential occupancies. There were two common problems identified during the evacuation plan update. First, some windows did not meet the minimum required opening or were too high off the floor. Ground-floor windows must have five square feet of opening, and those on upper floors a minimum of 5.7 square feet. Some locations had windows that had the correct opening, but poor maintenance did not allow the window to fully open. Several campuses had buildings where the height of the window exceeded 44 inches or did not meet minimum width (20 inches) or height (24 inches). Other locations had added grilles or bars for security. If these security features are added they must be operational from inside the room without the use of keys or tools. Rooms with window security features must also have smoke detectors installed.

Lessons learned at all locations this summer can be summarized as follows: existing buildings must have egress routes and egress diagrams reviewed periodically. Reviews should be completed when new flooring is installed, programmatic changes occur or when alarm systems or sprinkler systems are installed. Exterior site changes requiring new emergency assembly points must include an update to interior diagrams directing occupants to a location.

There are many other requirements related to maintaining safe egress systems. The items listed here reflect common problems identified at many schools. Every campus should create a timeline to evaluate both the physical components of as well as user-related impacts to the egress system.

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management September 2016 issue of Spaces4Learning.

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.