|Nightclub safety for students|
The message of the Texas State Fire Marshal's office to college students is "Have an Exit Strategy."
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2007
By Carolyn Perez
In October 2006, in observance of Fire Prevention Week, Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office launched a comprehensive fire prevention campaign on the University of Texas ’ Austin campus and at other locations throughout the state. The campaign, Have an Exit StrategyTM, urged college students to identify alternate exits and create an escape plan when they enter a crowded public space such as a nightclub.
State Fire Marshal Paul Maldonado, like thousands of his colleagues around the country, was disturbed after viewing video footage of the 2003 Station Nightclub fire in Rhode Island where 100 patrons tragically died. Could this happen in Texas? “The Have an Exit Strategy campaign is designed to bring exit safety to the forefront of your consciousness and to instill personal responsibility for your own safety. You must anticipate the need to rapidly escape, plan primary and alternative escape routes, and act appropriately in an emergency,” says Maldonado.
The fire marshal’s Inspections Division, which follows NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, conducted random inspections of nightclubs and bars to identify hazardous conditions. The results of those inspections showed an astonishing 96 percent of the establishments had exit violations. Specifically, of the 189 establishments inspected, 182 failed. Violations ranged from poorly illuminated exit signs to exit doors that were padlocked shut. The fire marshal’s office employees realized the enormous potential for loss of life considering that there are thousands similar nightclub establishments in the state.
Due to Texas’s vastness and the fire marshal’s office limited inspection staff, sending an inspector to each establishment was not feasible. With egress access identified as an impediment to speedy evacuations, the fire marshal’s office directed its attention to a second, equally important problem: the strong human tendency, in an emergency, to try to go out the same door they came in. It appeared that the underlying problem was an issue of human behavior. Failure to develop an escape plan is a key factor in many large loss fires.
It seemed logical to get a message out to those who most frequently patronize bars and nightclubs—students aged 18-34. The fire marshal’s office is headquartered in Austin, the “Live Music Capital of the World” known for both higher education and a thriving bar and nightclub scene. For example, each year the city hosts the SXSW (South by Southwest) Music and Media, which showcases hundreds of musical acts from around the globe on over 50 stages in downtown Austin.
To understand the mindset of the target market, the fire marshal’s office commissioned a study of local university students that was administered by MBA candidate students from St. Edward’s University in Austin. Among the findings:
The very nature of nightclubs makes them hazardous places to be when a fire breaks out: smoking and drinking are ubiquitous and large numbers of people are crammed into small areas. In addition, exit signs can be difficult to see through dim lighting and smoke, especially in an emergency. Some older, smaller venues lack the sprinkler systems required in larger structures, rendering them particularly dangerous. Clearly, the time to devise an escape plan is before you need one.
Development of ‘Have an Exit Strategy’
ThinkStreet, an Austin-based advertising and marketing firm, signed on as a third partner when it agreed to lend its best creative minds to work on the project pro bono. Have an Exit Strategy was born.
With a clear message, a target audience, and a desired outcome identified, the fire marshal’s office approached representatives at the University of Texas at Austin to determine their interest in bringing the message to the university’s students. University officials responded enthusiastically and plans were made to roll out the message on campus during Fire Prevention Week. The fire marshal’s office, the university, the LCRA, and ThinkStreet met several times over the course of two years to fine-tune the Have an Exit Strategy message.
Campus risk management officials and student groups helped distribute items at student orientation sessions and posted printed materials in high traffic areas such as dining halls, dormitories, libraries, and recreation facilities.
To complement visual and tangible items, a Have an Exit Strategy Web site (www.haveanexitstrategy.com) went live in September. The fire marshal’s office aimed to create as much repeat exposure as possible in the hopes that the logo and message would imprint on the collective student subconscious. The fire marshal’s office hoped that checking for two exits would become as second nature as looking both ways before crossing the street.
The Texas Fire Service Consortium, comprised of organizations such as the Texas Fire Chief’s Association, the State Firemen’s’ and Fire Marshals’ Association, the Texas State Association of Firefighters, and the State Association of Fire Emergency Districts, readily endorsed Have an Exit Strategy and was instrumental in spreading the word and encouraging communities and individuals to participate in local, grassroots awareness campaigns.
To keep the Have an Exit Strategy message alive and improve public safety on the broadest scale possible, the state fire marshal’s office recently formed a partnership with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
Under this agreement, fire marshal’s office inspectors train Alcoholic Beverage Commission field personnel to recognize unsafe exits in licensed venues. After undergoing training, agents are provided with a pocket-sized reference card and toll-free number they can use to contact the fire marshal’s office. Alcoholic Beverage Commission agents, who have effectual authority over licensed venues, can order immediate corrections and refer observed violations to the fire marshal’s office for enforcement or referral to local fire authorities. By June 2007, more than 420 Alcoholic Beverage Commission field investigators, field auditors, managers and office employees will have completed this training.
The fire marshal’s office also prepared a flyer for bar proprietors entitled “Is My Business Fire-Safe?” This useful tool serves as a “cheat sheet” for owners and employees and helps them recognize and learn to correct common egress violations. It has been provided to more than 2,500 business owners undergoing mandatory training with Alcoholic Beverage Commission due to liquor law violation.
Carolyn Perez is an Information Specialist for the State Fire Marshal's Office, in Austin, Texas