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Situation: Fire

What is a wardens role and what can they expect?

Fires have been, up until the last century, spectacularly damaging events known for consuming large sections of entire cities. More modern building technologies, firefighting techniques and urban planning developments have rendered such events a thing of the past. Wardens form a key part of modern fire management ensuring that these events are less destructive than they otherwise would be.

In this section we will go over what goes into managing a fire in a facility from the point of view of wardens and the emergency control organisation. This section is looking at the situation of a building being on fire as opposed to a bushfire as the management approach will be different for each.

It is also important to remember that your site probably has their own specific emergency plans and procedures that will take priority over the guidance provided in this article, which is intended as general advice and best practices for managing an emergency.

First Steps

If you are a warden in a facility that is on fire, or has had a fire alarm go off there are a number of actions you need to take, usually these have to be done concurrently:

Assess the situation. Is the fire nearby? Is it small enough that you could put it out quickly with nearby firefighting equipment? Sometimes the quickest way to remove the danger posed by a fire is by removing the fire by extinguishing it. If this is not possible do you need to evacuate the area? Is there a specific route you need to guide people to evacuate by in order to avoid the danger posed by the fire?

These are questions that cannot be answered in a general manner by this article as each individual situation will be different and there can be any number of factors that affect the answer to all of them. They are, however, questions you will need to ask yourself and find an answer for.

Evacuate your area. You should alert all occupants in the area that there is a fire/the fire alarm is active and instruct them to leave their personal belongings and work and make their way to the emergency assembly point via the fire exits. There may be people who require assistance in evacuating due to mobility issues or injuries. If the building layout is complicated, you have people unfamiliar with the building layout or the buildings construction makes evacuation confusing you may need to lead the group out.

Check your area. Australian standard 3745 makes the point that it is more important to check an area is clear of occupants than to try and conduct a roll call once outside. There are a number of factors that can render a roll call ineffective, from people having already left site and not signing out to occupants not having signed into site in the first place. By checking your area you can be confident that no one has been left behind, or if they have that emergency services can be directed to help them.

Take note of any occupants who are still in the area, for example those who have refused to leave.

Close the doors. As you complete your check of the area close any open doors. This slows down the spread of heat and smoke through the building and inhibits the flow of oxygen to the fire. A fire can be substantially slowed down or sometimes even extinguished by simply closing all the doors.

Shut down services. Some services, such as gas or fuel lines, should be shut down if possible. If these rupture or leak then the situation could get rapidly more dangerous for anyone still inside the building and hinder firefighting operations

Communicate with the chief warden. The chief warden is responsible for the overall management of an emergency and will be the primary point of contact for emergency services. They will want to know if people have not yet been evacuated or you have knowledge of the location or nature of the fire. Your facility may have radios, use a mobile app or have some other method of communication. This is something you will want to be familiar with before you need it in an emergency.

How does an evacuation work?

Its common for articles like this and even a sites emergency procedures to use the term "evacuate" without considering its meaning. At its most basic a full building evacuation involves getting everyone out and to the emergency assembly point, but even this can be more complicated than it sounds.

The first priority is to alert people of the danger and to get them moving under their own power towards the assembly point. The majority of occupants in most buildings are capable of getting themselves out following exit signage. The occupants who cannot leave on their own may require the assistance of yourself or someone else willing and capable of assisting them.

Some people may have difficulty moving down fire stairs to the assembly point. In these cases it is still  not acceptable to use the elevators to get them down. Instead, think if there are any fire rated building components that could be used as a temporary shelter until emergency services can arrive. In buildings with elevators it is common that the exit stairways are fire rated and can be used as a refuge.

You may encounter people who refuse to evacuate, this is more common in business settings where another employee considers their current activity to be more important than what is "probably just a false alarm or a drill." Generally speaking you won't have the authority to compel these people to leave or to use physical force to remove them. In these instances you should make a mental or physical note of who it is and where they are so that this can be passed on to the emergency services.

After the evacuation

Once the building is evacuated and you are at the emergency assembly point your role doesn't end. You need to keep people from entering the building, control the crowd at the assembly point and keep in contact with your chief warden. 

Once the excitement of the evacuation has worn off it is common for the evacuated persons to begin the clump into groups, socialising to pass the time. While this isn't necessarily directly harmful and can even help minimise stress and trauma associated with emergencies it is important that the group doesn't start to wander or drift into dangerous places, such as roads or places that might be disruptive to emergency services.

Some people might attempt to re-enter the building because they left some item of significance inside, or because they doubt the seriousness of the situation. Allowing them to do this risks them becoming a casualty or inhibiting emergency response. If someone does enter the building despite your attempts to prevent them make note of who it was and where they said they were going so you can pass this information on to emergency services.

At the emergency assembly point you should pass any information you have to your chief warden about the nature and location of the emergency and any people who have not yet evacuated. You should make yourself available to be reassigned as the chief warden may have jobs they need doing, for example controlling entry to the building, taking notes, or meeting emergency services to direct them to the correct location.

If at any time the emergency assembly point itself becomes dangerous, for example due to the spread of fire, smoke being blown over, falling or flying debris or vehicle movements then it may become wise to move to another impromptu emergency assembly point. This should be assessed based on its safety relative to the current position and wardens should be used to coordinate and lead the group to the second location.

What will emergency services want to know?

When emergency services arrive they will have specific information they want to enable them to effectively handle your situation. Some things you might need to provide them are:

  • Location of the fire

  • Nature of the fire (what is burning, any specific risks or notable factors like it being deliberately lit)

  • Location of any dangerous goods or flammable stores

  • Location of any gas isolations

  • Missing/Trapped/Injured persons location

Some of this is information you should know in advance, for example the location of your gas isolations and dangerous goods storage, but other information will need to be gathered during the event. Of course you may not have perfectly accurate information, but everything you can provide will make the emergency response smoother and potentially save lives. 

Even once you have given this information over to the fire brigade you will need to remain available and not wander off as there may be additional information they require as the situation evolves.

How do I know the fire brigade is coming?

Some facilities have an automatic fire detection and alarm system that is connected to what is called a monitoring service. This will automatically call and respond the fire department when it has an alarm. Even in this case you should still call 000 to ensure they respond as there are a number of faults that could prevent your fire alarm system automatically contacting them.

If your building does not have an automatic fire detection and alarm system then you will need to call 000 and ask for fire. When you are put through they will ask you a number of questions that you need to be prepared to provide information to, namely:

  • What is the address?

  • What is the nearest cross street?

  • Is anyone in immediate danger/trapped?

The operator may have further questions or instructions so it is important not to hang up on them. Its also important to speak slowly and calmly into the line so they can understand what you are saying, the emergency won't be processed faster if they have to keep asking you to repeat yourself.

Final Tips

  • Make sure you are familiar with your sites emergency procedures, they may differ from things presented here to account for your facilities unique circumstances

  • Familiarise yourself with the fire safety equipment on your site in case you have to use it

  • Maintain good housekeeping to minimise the chances of a fire starting and making evacuation easier

  • If you need to evacuate, discourage people in your area from taking excessive personal items as they could become obstructions or hazards

  • Stay calm. Getting caught up in hypotheticals or worst case scenarios will only make your response worse. Take the emergency one step at a time until such a time as it is over.