How to help save your life during a high-rise emergency evacuation

One afternoon when the power went out, hundreds of thousands of office workers, hotel guests and apartment residents were forced to navigate unfamiliar stairwells and exit routes in complete blackness.

Fortunately, because of the nature of that particular power failure, these people were able to take their time in the stairwells — feeling their way step-by-step or waiting for someone to arrive with a flashlight. However, as Humanscale Safety Products points out, in most evacuation situations, time is of the essence.

Skyscrapers and highrises - Toronto

There are common yet not-so-obvious mistakes people make in a high rise emergency — such as a fire, an earthquake or an act of terrorism — according to Building Safety Solutions (BSS), a provider of emergency preparedness and life safety products.

Confusion and panic during a high-rise emergency evacuation

BSS highlighted these mistakes along with tips about what to do — and what not to do — in a high rise apartment or office building emergency.
Mistake #1: Disregarding alarms

“Surprisingly, many people in a high rise emergency remain where they are, even when alarms are ringing,” said Hector Gomez, president and CEO of BSS. “If an alarm is ringing — even if you think it’s a drill — head for the nearest exit immediately.”

Gomez says time is of the essence — and even a one minute delay in responding could mean the difference between life and death.

Mistake #2: Discounting training

“Generally speaking, people don’t understand the importance of life safety training,” said Gomez. “If you live or work in a high rise building, by all means, make it a priority to participate in your building’s life safety training programs.”

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He suggests online training programs since they’re easy to access and participate in and they provide real-time building information with real-life diagrams of your specific building.

“Training is crucial in learning about escape routes and critical building systems (such as refuge areas and fire extinguishers), as well as what to do and what not to do in an emergency.”

Consider making or buying a kit to help you safely evacuate a building in a fire or smoke emergency. Humanscale suggests your kit should contain a flashlight, glowstick, sterilized water packets, a smoke hood (to preserve the essential breathing, vision and voice), and, ideally, a personal locator alarm.

Mistake #3: Going out through the in door

Gomez says people make the mistake of exiting through the door in which they entered a building even though it might not be the quickest or safest escape route.

His advice? Familiarize yourself with exits the minute you enter a building, familiarize yourself with the building’s evacuation plan (usually posted in lobbies) and, wherever your final destination inside, pay attention to exit signs nearest you for the fastest egress possible. If you’re a tenant of a building, make it a priority to understand your building’s evacuation plan.

Mistake #4: Helping others, not yourself

Gomez says people have an intrinsic willingness to help, but oftentimes, this helpful spirit is the very reason people perish in high rise disasters. “Floor wardens and emergency personnel are trained to handle emergency situations,” said Gomez. “As a building tenant, it’s your job to leave the building as quickly and as safely as possible.”

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Bottom line — leave the building and let the experts do their job.

Mistake #5: Trivializing an evacuation

Gomez advises taking a building evacuation seriously by keeping conversation to a minimum, leaving food and drinks behind, and for women, taking off high heels. “You’d be surprised the number of women who struggle to navigate stairwells in high heels.” He suggests women keep a pair of flat shoes near their desks so they can slip them on in the event of an emergency.

The final word? Exit the building calmly and quietly, leave unnecessary items behind and remove inhibiting shoes when applicable.

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