When a fire alarm sounds and you are at home you know what to do, evacuate. If the detector is sounding because you burned food in the kitchen you can determine very quickly that it may not be necessary to exit. Do you have the same response when you hear a fire alarm in an office building, school, large apartment complex, or shopping mall? From factories to college residence halls it happens all too often that the alarm sounds and occupants look to each other for how to respond. If no one observes a fire or smoke in their area they often continue their work or their studies, they continue on with their routine because, "this is just another false alarm." Frequent false alarms can be a hassle to work operations and daily living but waiting for obvious signs of fire in a large building can give the fire time to block your exits and fill areas with toxic smoke.
The dangers of waiting for obvious signs of fire reduces the ease that large numbers of people can exit a building. During a college basketball game there may be thousands of people present in an arena, it is much easier to evacuate without injuries occurring when early fire detection occurrs and you evacuate. If you initially had 15 minutes for safe exit in case of a fire, you may have only 5 minutes to exit an upper floor if you wait to see flames in your area. Now the exits will be jammed as the large crowd now floods the exits in a panic.
In all building types, when you hear the alarm, it is important to evacuate. Do not wait until you see fire trucks or firefighters. They may have only been notified of an emergency at the same time your building's alarm began sounding.
If you are behind closed doors, always check the door for heat before opening it. If you feel heat do not open the door. Alert others from a window of your location.
Move to the stairwells and evacuate carefully through the emergency exits. If you experience smoke stay low to the ground, even small amounts of smoke can be deadly.
Planning your route, knowing your meeting place, and evacuating quickly ensures your safety. Following these steps also allows the fire department to focus on extinguishing the fire and preventing property loss. When their are trapped residents or workers it requires more resources to rescue those trapped and then begin controlling the spread of fire.
Exiting a building is much easier when rehearsed and you know the plan. It's much easier to exit a building calmly when you have time. Do not ignore fire alarms, they're in place to save your life.
Having problems with constant false alarms? Owners/Occupants can contact their alarm companies to have the system serviced and replace any faulty sensors. If you are in an apartment building or residence hall and their are frequent false alarms due to poor cooking habits, you should insist that your college or building managers host fire prevention and education programs. No matter your building type you can always call your local fire department for more resources, demonstrations, and assistance in your evacuation planning.
Alex is a volunteer firefighter in Evansville, Indiana and a full-time firefighter in Providence, Kentucky. You can follow him on Twitter @FireSafetyAZ