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.
The fire marshal’s office concluded that the University of Texas at Austin, with 55,000 students, seemed the ideal laboratory in which to conduct a pilot outreach project.
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’
From the beginning, collaboration played a large role in the project. The Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), a Texas conservation and reclamation district, shared the fire marshal’s office concern about the possibility of such a tragedy occurring in Texas. Both agencies felt a strong call to action, and in 2004, representatives from each sat down together to come up with a plan.
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.
As Fire Prevention Week kicked off on October 4, students were met with Have an Exit Strategy posters, bus posters, door hangers, magnets, and public service announcements on campus television. The university even enlisted the help of Longhorn’s head football coach Mack Brown and women’s basketball head coach Jody Conradt. The two well-known coaches recorded messages, which were played on the Godzillatron and Jumbotron® screens before games reminding fans to make note of the emergency exits at the University of Texas Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
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.
According to marketing experts, asking a consumer to change their behavior is exceedingly difficult. It is much more involved than simply asking someone to “Eat at Joe’s” or purchase Brand X detergent. For example, it took many years for antismoking activists to succeed in convincing large numbers of Americans to quit smoking or to never begin. Have an Exit Strategy is no different in that aspect. Although it will likely take months or even years of cumulative exposure to get the message out on a broad scale, the fire marshal’s office is committed to doing so. The fire marshal’s office has adopted the Have an Exit Strategy logo and slogan as its own, and remains steadfast in its commitment to support the message in any way it can. With the fire marshal’s recent expansion of its Prevention Outreach Division, the HAES message dovetails with the organization’s mission to “reduce the number and severity of fires and fire related losses throughout Texas.”
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.
In this Section:
|The Legacy of Nightclub Fires
Two presentations at WSC&E® examines the code changes, research, and legislation related to nightclub fires.
|NFPA 96: Cutting Edge
The proposed changes focus on advances in technology.
|Nightclub Safety for Students
The message of the Texas State Fire Marshal's office to college students is Have an Exit Strategy.
|Where Discovery Delivers
FM Global's Research Campus establishes new industry methods and standards with advanced technology labs.
|Simplifying the Accessibility Myth
We all may become disabled, so think more about how to regulate our built environment and our programs.
|Roundtable discussion of changes to the NEC
NFPA’s electrical staff reviews the proposed changes to the National Electrical Code®.
Mass notification in the 2007 Edition of the National Fire Alarm Code ®.
|Changes to NFPA 25 - 2007
A lack of maintenance is often a contributing factor to sprinkler failure. NFPA 25 provides the needed guidance.