Fire and emergency ready

No matter the industry, every workplace should be prepared for a fire or other emergencies by having trained employees, frequent drills and the correct equipment

Whether it is the threat of a wildfire on a farm, or faulty wiring that sets an office building alight, every industry needs to prepare for potential fire hazards. Although each industry will have some unique challenges to overcome, there are a few universal fire safety guidelines such as conducting regular fire drills and providing employees with training.

Adequately preparing employees, especially when they are unfamiliar with fires, can prove challenging, says Katie Andrews, media relations manager for the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom.

“Previous research on human behaviour during real-world fire incidents has shown that a lack of understanding of the spread and movement of fire often means that occupants are unprepared and misjudge appropriate actions,” she explains. To address this, the faculty has studied how virtual reality (VR) can assist employees in retaining knowledge.

The Human Factors Research Group at the university developed an immersive VR system that stimulates the perception of temperature and sense of smell, sight and hearing. It was used to test how the participants behave in two training scenarios: an emergency evacuation during a fire and a fuel leak.

During the study, researchers found that participants experienced a greater sense of urgency with the multi-sensory approach, which better mimics a real-life scenario, and were more likely to avoid the virtual fires. This can assist employees in remaining calm, predicting the movement and responding better to an actual fire.

In addition, the participants of the VR training also experienced better long-term information retention, showed higher levels of engagement, a better attitude towards occupational health and safety and a willingness to undertake training in the future.

“Health and safety training can fail to motivate and engage employees, and lack relevance to real-life contexts,” says Glyn Lawson, associate professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham. “This research suggests that virtual environments can help address these issues by increasing trainee engagement and willingness to participate in further training.

“There are also business benefits associated with the use of virtual environment training, such as the ability to deliver training at or near the workplace at a time that is convenient to the employee,” he adds. Employers can enjoy convenient training while ensuring employees are well prepared for a fire evacuation.

Once an evacuation plan has been established, a fire or emergency marshal needs to be appointed and drill exercises scheduled regularly. Ideally, there should always be at least two fire marshals, in case one is off on holiday or sick. The number of employees in the building or company will also determine the number of marshals required.

Ideally, the appointed fire marshals should attend a training session or workshop that provides information on fire safety, including how fires spread, fire classification and how to use fire equipment.

Training provider NOSA, for example, offers a fire marshal course that includes a basic firefighting and evacuation awareness workshop, which includes information on emergency assembly points, bomb threat emergencies, medical emergencies and evacuation planning.

As is the case with many emergency-related courses, fire marshals should be retrained every few years to ensure that their information is still relevant.

Similarly, fire-extinguishing systems should be checked often, including smoke detectors, sprinklers, fire-hose reels and fire extinguishers. The latter should be inspected monthly and serviced annually. The device should be easily accessible, the pressure should be at the recommended level, the pin and tamper seal intact and there should be no dents, leaks or rust.

In some cases, it is advisable to shake the extinguisher to prevent the powder from settling. It is always best to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. While it might seem like a tedious task, inspection and maintenance of a fire extinguisher is important to ensure that it works effectively when required.

Other safety features to check during fire and emergency planning includes ensuring:

• All safety signs are clearly displayed and easy to read or understand;

• Fire escapes, exits and stairways are clear of obstacles;

• Fire doors and smoke screens are secure;

• Any flammable materials are correctly and securely stored;

• No open flames are left unattended; and

• Electrical connections and other fire sources are inspected regularly.

Fire and emergency planning might not be a top priority, especially in low-risk work environments, but it should be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure that the necessary equipment works and that employees are adequately prepared to safely evacuate the workplace.   

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