Author(s): Liz Langley. Published on January 4, 2016.

What's the Plan?

The importance of having an emergency home evacuation plan. BY LIZ LANGLEY

EVERY TIME PEOPLE get on an airplane, they’re given a review of emergency safety procedures. But how often do they consider a safety plan in their own homes?

Karen Berard-Reed, senior project manager in NFPA’s Public Education Division, says that in a typical residential fire event, from the time a smoke alarm sounds, residents have just one to two minutes to escape safely. In a senior-heavy residence, where many people may have mobility, hearing, or vision problems, it’s especially important for apartment owners and building managers to have an emergency plan in place and to make sure residents are familiar with it.

Lack of preparedness is alleged to have been part of the problem in a fire at the Wedgewood Senior Living Apartments in San Antonio in December, 2014, that killed five people. According to media reports, the list of issues in a lawsuit filed against the apartments last January included the failure of building management “to adequately notify elderly residents of how to evacuate in the event of a fire.”

NFPA provides tips for fire safety for older adults as part of its Remembering When™ program, a fire and fall prevention initiative developed with the Centers for Disease Control. NFPA has also developed an “Emergency Evacuation Planning Guide for People with Disabilities” to help building managers and staff coordinate and repeat safety drills for people who may not be able to use escape routes on their own, hear fire alarms, or understand the information presented.

“If a fire breaks out, your adrenaline starts pumping, so you want to be able to enact an emergency plan without thinking,” Berard-Reed says. “If you haven’t practiced, you might not know what you can or cannot do. Can you actually open this window, or get to the door?”

NFPA has considered the need for new provisions or guidelines for the 2018 edition of NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, in the senior housing environment. The discussion addressed topics such as providing residents with more detailed emergency instructions based on what some jurisdictions are implementing. The code currently requires that residents be provided with instructions every year regarding locations of alarms, emergency exits, and the actions to be taken when an alarm sounds.

Some of the new ideas might address the “actions to be taken” section of the code, says Robert Solomon, division manager, Building and Life Safety at NFPA. He cites an example of a fire in a high-rise residential building with currently mandated fire-resistant construction, state-of-the art alarms, and automatic sprinklers, where the best option may be to stay put rather than evacuate.

Solomon says other enhancements to the code could address practices like walk-throughs; on the day new residents sign a lease, for example, the building manager would physically walk them through the emergency plan. The already required annual emergency-plan follow-up could certainly be reinforced with all residents to make sure they remain familiar with it.

The committee has not yet proposed any changes. The committee believes that the current provisions that layer in multiple safety features, those related to both construction and building operation, are effective when they are adopted and enforced. Work is currently focused on those adoption efforts, as well as a review of the recent summit on independent living organized by the Fire Protection Research Foundation.

​LIZ LANGLEY is a writer in Orlando, Florida. Top Photograph: Richard Eaton/Demotix