BY STEVE OUGHTERSON
Tragic fires in U.S. history have sparked many different reactions from the fire service. Usually the reaction has been to introduce new codes or activities to ensure that similar loss of life will not occur again. Fires such as the Beverly Hills Supper Club; the Happy Land Social Club; and, most recently, The Station in West Warwick, Rhode Island, weigh heavily in our minds. These fires draw similarities that should scare us because history continues to repeat itself: People continue to die just a few feet from safety. If you have seen the footage from The Station fire, you saw the horrible images of people stacked on top of each other struggling to get to safety while people behind them and under them were dying. Meanwhile, it appears that other exits in the building were unobstructed, yet unused. Summarily, why is it that most people will wait behind a huge group of people to exit from the front door instead of finding an alternate exit? More importantly, why do people not know the locations of these exits before an emergency?
Even though we may think we are not reactionary when it comes to fire prevention, we most certainly are. Fire departments around the county scurried to their local venues, nightclubs, restaurants, and bars to reinforce local and state codes pertaining to occupancy ratings and fire inspections. We at the Loveland-Symmes (OH) Fire Depart-ment thought that this historic problem of people dying just feet from safety might need a different approach.
While at a sports bar soon after the events of West Warwick, I was thinking about what people were thinking about such a tragic event. Specifically, I asked one of the managers how she would evacuate the building in case of a fire. Surprisingly, she did not have a clue. I began to think that most people don’t think about the “what ifs” while out socially. If this is the problem, then what is the solution?
I believe the solution is simple and can be adopted by any fire protection district or prevention bureau. Even if it is just an informal conversation with a group of employees, these people should know exactly what to do and what to expect in an emergency in their building. Likewise, I believe the patrons of the establishments should be more aware of their surroundings and should know where all the exits are, not just the main entrance through which they entered.
With this problem in mind, the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department has enacted a new program to supplement its regular inspection program for nightclubs and bars. The program, called “EAT” (Exit Action Team), is designed to teach owners and employees of local restaurants, bars, and nightclubs how to evacuate their buildings in emergencies and to take more control over the fire prevention issues that affect their businesses.
The second part of the program pertains to education for the adult population that visits our bars, nightclubs, and restaurants. Its focus is using restaurant-type advertising to get out the message: “When You’re Out—Know Two Ways Out.”
Training is a large part of the EAT program. Fire inspectors visit local establishments to train management and staff on their responsibilities in a fire. The training for bar and restaurant personnel has several goals. The manager is required to complete a weekly and monthly checklist that addresses fire prevention issues that affect the building. Some of these items include checking the cleanliness of the exhaust hood system, checking fire extinguishers for service, and making sure that changing seating or venue arrangements do not affect exit access. The manager also must train new employees on their functions in an emergency.
The program is based on the fact that restaurants and bars usually have staff assigned to all parts of the building. The kitchen staff is in the kitchen, the wait staff is out in the seating area, the hostess is by the main entrance, and the managers float throughout the building. The idea is to give all of these people assigned a geographic position in the building a specific evacuation responsibility in a fire emergency. As an example, the kitchen staff would be responsible for clearing and opening up their exits, usually in the rear, and to ensure that the fire extinguishing system is activated, if needed. The host or hostess would be responsible for making sure the main exit is clear and that people move quickly through it and away from the building.
The wait staff would have the greatest responsibility. Instead of having the wait staff evacuate immediately, leaving their patrons behind to fend for themselves, the staff would take an active role in evacuating its assigned areas. The wait staff is responsible for evacuating respective sections and moving the patrons quickly to the most appropriate exit. Given the layout of the restaurant and the location of the fire, this exit may be in the front, rear, side, or even through the kitchen.
The EAT program was kicked off with its pilot partner, Hooters Restaurant. Even though our Hooters Restaurant does not pose a significant threat for a fire with a large loss of life, it is an easily recognizable franchise in a national chain. The management and staff have made Hooters a great pilot partner with our department because of their concern for safety, especially after the horrible events of West Warwick.
Our department chose a cup coaster design and posters with the Hooters women to display our message to the public. The “When You’re Out—Know Two Ways Out” slogan on a cup coaster catches the public’s eye and gets them to thinking about where the building’s most appropriate and alternate exits are. We hope this will make them look for an alternative to the main entrance/exit, so there will not be a bottleneck at that exit in an emergency. The same message will be on coasters, place mats, and napkins. These items will be given to managers and staff for use at their restaurants, prompting patrons to think about where the exits are and to look for alternate exits marked by the appropriate signage. Also, our area will have a billboard featuring the poster.
We have presented this program to the Clermont County Ohio Fire Chief’s Association and hope to make it a countywide program. Funding for the project has not been budget breaking. The cost for 6,000 cup coasters and 100 posters was around $500. Currently, the Milford Community Fire Department has jumped onboard. We are contacting local beer distributors to ask for help in funding this program. We figure that instead of having a firefighter on the cup coaster, the companies can put their beer label on it, especially if they are paying for the program.
Raising the awareness of the staffs and patrons of these establishments in your jurisdiction can help save lives in an emergency—and without prohibitive costs.
STEVE OUGHTERSON, a firefighter/paramedic with the Loveland-Symmes (OH) Fire Department since 1992, is currently a lieutenant at Station 60. He is responsible for community fire and safety programs and Task Force One policies and procedures. He is a diver in Task Force One and an S.R.T. medic, as well as a special deputy for the Clermont County (OH) Sheriff’s Department.
EAT: EXIT ACTION TEAM EMPLOYEE EMERGENCY RESPONSIBILITIES
Below is a list of staff positions typically found in a restaurant or bar. As you can see, each position is assigned specific functions in an emergency. The EAT program assigns these functions at the beginning of each shift so that each employee knows his specific responsibility before a fire emergency occurs.
The following is an example of the safety checklists given to the managers of targeted establishments. These checklists serve as daily reminders that safety is assumed by their patrons, so there should be no lapse for the safety-conscious establishment and its management and staff. The checklist is simple and should become automatic in the daily routine.
1. Ensure that tables and chairs do not affect egress to marked exits.
2. Ensure that exits will perform their function in an emergency.
3. Check all exit and emergency lights for proper illumination.
4. Ensure that all staff members know their EAT responsibilities.
1. Check all fire extinguishers:
a. Pressure is in the green area.
b. It is properly placed on the wall.
c. The tag is hanging on the extinguisher.
d. The extinguisher is within its service date.
2. Make sure that decorations don’t pose a fire threat.