Fire & Life Safety

Emergency Egress

I have been working with several school districts and a few boarding schools this year updating their emergency egress plans. As we started looking 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 that it is important to look at existing buildings periodically and determine if changes in use, configuration of corridors or room configurations has 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.

The 2015 Fire Code has specific requirements for maintenance of egress routes and the signs or diagrams 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
  • Areas of Refuge
  • Severe Weather Shelter location(s) within the building
  • Building name and postal service address
  • Instructions to report fires and other emergencies
  • Directions to not use elevators
  • 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 furniture and verify it does not obstruct egress. Catering and special event operations often set up tables and chairs in corridors and rooms. Preapproving acceptable set up scenarios will increase compliance with fire code egress requirements.

Evacuation Plan

Egress Windows

Many boarding school locations around the country 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 of the floor. Ground floor windows must have 5 square feet of opening, and those on upper floors must have a minimum of 5.7 square feet.

Some locations had windows that had the correct opening, but poor maintenance (multiple layers of paint) did not allow the window to fully open. In several locations, the height of the windowsill exceeded 44 inches or did not meet minimum width (20 inches) or height (24 inches). Other locations added grills or bars for added security. These security features must be operational from the inside the room without the use of keys or tools. Rooms with window security features must also have smoke detectors installed.

Following are lessons learned at all locations this summer:

  • 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; and
  • 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 school should create a timeline to evaluate both the physical components of the egress system as well as user related impacts to the egress system.

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

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.

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