Teach Your Community to be “Exit Aware”

By Tom Kiurski

We have all been asked to speak to many different audiences over our fire service careers. There are times when adult audiences are a challenge to us. We don’t want to repeat exactly what we said during our last engagement, but we still want to impart important safety messages. In many cases, these adults will take home the important points and share them with their families, so our efforts can be far reaching.

As a speaker, you probably wonder what topics to cover. A brief introduction of yourself and what has been happening in your fire department during the past year is a great way to start, but then what? Current events may present that “teachable moment” that can put your message into practice.

In the past few months, we have seen large numbers of people die in two separate incidents in Chicago and Rhode Island. There are no new reasons discovered for the deaths in these incidents–only the same causes repeated yet again. To understand how to better prepare our citizens for emergency evacuations, let’s take a closer look at these two incidents.

On February 17, 2003, in Chicago, a fight broke out on the second floor of a crowded nightclub called E2. Mace and pepper spray were used in an attempt to break up the fight. As the crowd scrambled to get down the club’s single open staircase leading outside, some patrons began to vomit while others passed out–probably from the chemical fumes. It is believed that the club was ordered not to use the second floor because the structure didn’t meet city building codes.

In Rhode Island, The Station nightclub fire on February 20, 2003, became the fourth deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history, killing 100 people and injuring nearly 200 more. Pyrotechnics used by the band started a fire when sparks ignited soundproofing foam behind the stage. As the above-capacity crowd headed for the main entrance, panic ensued when the crowd jammed up and slowed to a crawl.

In both cases, the tragic results could have been lessened by many factors. First, but beyond the capacity of attendees to determine, are the overcrowded conditions that were allowed. I find it quite hard to believe managers when they say they “don’t know” if they exceeded the rated capacity, since they keep track of the number of people entering the establishment.

Second, locked or blocked exits are inexcusable for a business owner, as is allowing patrons in an area that was ordered closed by the city. It seems that people with admittance dollars in hand are sometimes too tempting to turn away for something like a violation notice that rarely gets checked in the late night hours.

While ordinary citizens can’t control the factors cited above, there are several things that we can teach them to help ensure their safety as they enjoy themselves at public gatherings:

  • Encourage your audience, as they enter a structure, to note where all the exits are located, and which one is closest to them. Exits in buildings where groups gather are usually equipped with an illuminated “EXIT” sign, and the door needs no key to be opened from the inside of the building. The closest exit should be used in an emergency, an action that often goes against our natural tendency, which is to leave a structure by the same door through which we entered.
  • If they see a locked or blocked exit, encourage them to report it to the building management so that the management knows it is being watched and won’t be allowed to put lives at risk.
  • If citizens ever feel so crowded that they begin to feel uncomfortable, then it is time to leave. It’s better to lose a few dollars than to put their lives in danger.
  • Remind your audience that smoke and heat rise. It may seem “faster” to run, or stand and walk quickly, but crawling in heat and smoke is the safest way to get out of a building. It buys people more time away from the heat, smoke, and confusing effects of early carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • After they have exited, they should move away from the building. It’s natural that people want to see what is going on, but that slows down others who may be exiting the building or may hamper suppression efforts.

Once you have covered these points, bring up another fire. We all know the life safety record of fully sprinklered buildings and should encourage them as much as possible. By relating the events of this recent fire, you will reach your audience with useful facts about fire sprinklers:

On February 17, 2003, a fire took place about which most people are unaware. In a popular downtown Minneapolis nightspot call The Fine Line Music Café, the featured band started a fire on stage when pyrotechnics were ignited. Trained staff directed people out of the club’s many exits, and a sprinkler system suppressed the fire quickly. There were no injuries, the fire and water damage were cleaned up, and the club was back in business before too long. While business owners often claim they can’t afford a sprinkler system, this is yet another example of how they can’t afford not to have one.

By taking a few precautionary steps, and remembering the actions listed above, your public will increase their chances of survival should a tragedy occur.

Tom Kiurski is a firefighter, a paramedic, and the director of fire safety education for Livonia (MI) Fire & Rescue. His book Creating a Fire-Safe Community: A Guide for Fire Safety Educators (Fire Engineering, 1999) is a guide for bringing the safety message to all segments of the community efficiently and economically.

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