Fire safety: “Setting the right example is the key to being well-organized”

Discover the interactive story “how should I organize fire safety at my company ?”

Serge CélerinSerge Célerin, former captain of the Paris Fire Brigade, is now a reservist in the Republican Guard and a safety consultant. Here, he describes the best practices for managing fire risks on company premises. His motto is: “Do less, but do it better!”

Whatever your level of expertise, the most important thing about fire safety is to use your common sense. You have to be pragmatic and methodical. Two things are at stake: people, and the business. The first step is to identify all the potential risks, which means locating and quantifying the potentially inflammable material on-site, and identifying the places where a fire might start and then subsequently spread. These could be electrical installations, stocks of hazardous liquids, or potentially hazardous activities… Having done that, you need to carry out a qualitative and quantitative inventory of everything that could catch fire (and they are numerous!). Once you have an overview of the situation – so you know the potential sources of a fire and the risk of it being spread by inflammable material – you can use the space to store everything appropriately and thereby contain an outbreak if it occurred. You can then take the relevant preventive measures.

 

How does that affect the layout of a company’s premises? 

Even before you get into the regulatory aspects, it’s obvious that layout plays an essential role in avoiding the dramatic consequences of a fire starting and then spreading. This means having storage areas that are well-proportioned, well-ordered, well-ventilated and easily accessible. Clearly, it also means separating out all the incompatible elements. When it comes the layout of a building, you need to minimize the potential impact on people and also on equipment and stock; specifically by both installing technology and training your staff.

You need to work on the way that stock is organized in storage areas and the various materials involved, while also highlighting the location of employees and the emergency exits. Of course, all of this must be coupled with the installation of fire alarms and smoke evacuation systems. Focusing on your company’s facilities also means working to isolate those aspects which involve third-parties, to prevent an outbreak from spreading beyond your own buildings. In offices, the risk is mainly electrical, so you need to think carefully about your electrical distribution and capacity. For example, as the number of sockets multiplies, so does the risk of a short-circuit and an overloaded system. So, the electrical installation needs to be adapted to the expected level of consumption.

As for the layout of premises, people have to be able to get out, and potentially, they might also need a place of safety inside the building. Offices often have bay windows and open spaces, for example, that could be used. People must be able to move around easily, which means having wide exits and very clearly marked emergency exits. People with a disability need to work in an area that they can either leave unaided, or be rescued from.

 

What about staff training?

The key to success with any fire prevention policy is to make sure that staff are aware of it, and that they have been suitably trained. If a fire breaks out, staff who know what to do are obviously in a better position than untrained people. Training in fire risks creates reflexes that are absolutely vital. A reflex has to be learned: without the necessary training, you cannot have the right reflexes. Or, you might develop the wrong ones! The more training people have had, the better their chances of taking effective action if a fire does break out. I always advise firms to organise regular evacuation exercises and training sessions that involve the whole company. Being well-organised is all about setting the right example, so it’s essential for management to embrace the safety policy, so that all the employees follow suit. Engagement is about having a conversation across the whole company, and the same is true for fire safety. Even if some people can’t make it to a training session, someone needs to give them a debrief on what was said on the course and the key points to remember.

fire safety

Credit: Saval Fire Safety

What are the classic mistakes to be avoided?

The biggest enemy of fire safety is the series of internal memos on the subject that nobody reads! Messages need to be clear and to be communicated effectively, so they are not just theories (in other words, talk less, but talk more effectively!). Being practical is the key. The second pitfall is the failure to set an example. Why would anyone engage with fire safety measures and get themselves trained if the management can’t be bothered to do the same?

 

In terms of equipment, what are companies legally obliged to have? And what items aren’t mandatory, but are a good idea to have?

It all depends on the category of the site and the activities being carried out. The equipment obviously has to be commensurate with the inherent risks, along with the site’s geographic and economic importance. For example, the Chateau de Versailles isn’t intrinsically a site at risk, but it has significant cultural and economic importance, which obviously entitles it to maximum protection. Overall, three things are essential: to set up an effective alarm system, which includes both human and technical solutions; to have the right equipment for extinguishing a fire; and to have evacuation routes that are sufficiently wide and sufficiently numerous to ensure everyone’s safety. Getting people out must be the priority.

 

If a fire starts, how should people react?

You have to act immediately. Ask yourself (quickly) the following questions: Can I take action? Have I got fire extinguishing equipment nearby? If an electrical fire breaks out, would switching off the power put the fire out? And then, very quickly, you have to make a choice. If you try to do something, and it doesn’t put the fire out – don’t keep trying without alerting the other building occupants and the fire service. When it comes to an evacuation, training and common sense will enable people to act. You have to alert other people, and then leave the building, closing every door after you. After that, you should all gather outside, so that a roll-call can be called and you can be sure that everyone has got out.

 

What must you absolutely not do? 

Use inappropriate fire extinguishing equipment. In a kitchen, or with an oil fire, using water is a big mistake (as YouTube can demonstrate!). You also have to avoid panicking (this is the crucial moment when the benefits of training rapidly become clear) and avoid leaving doors open as you exit the building. Otherwise, the smoke and flames will spread. And smoke is often worse than the flames. When it gets dense, it becomes an extremely rapid vector for spreading flames. And obviously, smoke terrifies everyone, so there is a real risk of a crush, and injuries, as crowds of people try to get out at the same time.

 

Why are the first fifteen minutes so important? 

What’s so frightening about a fire is that it spreads exponentially – there’s no time for hesitation. In the first three minutes, if a fire hasn’t been put out, you must at least contain it or slow the spread. If a fire is either extinguished or contained, you limit the risk of it spreading, causing damage and creating panic among employees and the general public.

On the other hand, if trying to extinguish a fire isn’t possible without the risk of it getting out of control, it’s important to focus on containing the outbreak, and ensuring people’s safety by evacuating them, if necessary.

Fifteen minutes, that’s a huge amount of time. You need to act in the first three minutes to prevent a fire from getting out of control.

 

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