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April 26, 2008

Feeling the Heat
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 06:57 PM * 31 comments

Earlier today, a fire broke out on the ground floor of a mattress factory in Casablanca, Morocco. It spread rapidly, due to the presence of “chemical products” in the building. There were about 100 workers inside at the time.

55 people are dead. Many of them were on the top floor, where female workers sew. Rachnia Darif, who crawled through the roof space to a neighboring building, described the scene.

We ran to the door. It was blocked, to the elevator, it was blocked. Then, oops, the lights went out.

My first thought, of course, was historical. But Morocco’s record on workers’ rights, though spotty, is not disastrous. This is probably not equivalent, and it’s worth waiting for the investigation before drawing any conclusions.

Still, on Monday, please do me a favor. Look around your workplace and make sure you know where your fire exits are, and that they’re clear and unlocked. Locate the fire extinguishers and make sure you know how to sound the alarm. If your company hasn’t done a fire drill in a while, poke someone to do one.

(PS: I presume everyone has read this? Our Jim doesn’t write these things just to hear himself type.)

Comments on Feeling the Heat:
#1 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2008, 07:01 PM:

I had the same historical reaction.

I am now less annoyed at the side effects of the fire drill at the school adjacent to the house (the kids harrass the dogs as they go to have their noses counted).

#2 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2008, 07:24 PM:

The building I work in is, of course, essentially a giant chimney: a triangular floor plan surrounding a central stairwell. On the bright side, we have designated fire wardens on every floor and pretty much constant fire drills. And between 9/11 and the 2003 blackout, we have a pretty good idea what it's like when everyone leaves the building through the stairwell at once.

#3 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2008, 07:28 PM:

I work in an old, for Atlanta (1881), building, with a lot of very inflammable stuff in it. I'm also right next to a stairwell.

#4 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2008, 07:31 PM:

And a building doesn't have to be very old to not have sprinklers; cf the just-hours-ago apartment fire in Connecticut.

#5 ::: PurpleGirl ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2008, 07:38 PM:

My first thought was of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. I was a chemistry major at NYU and had classes in the Brown Building (as it is now called). The building was only partially refurbished. The elevators were never restored and NYU hasn't brought them up to code either. To get into Brown, you enter from staircases in Main Building or Waverly Building.

It may not be exactly analogous but if exits were blocked then it parallels the Triangle Fire.

The current office building I work in holds fire drills 4 times a year. I know where the exits are, and which one is closest to me.

#6 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2008, 07:55 PM:

I've seen good research on why the simple act of mentally walking through an evacuation plan just once can make a difference between freezing and acting if an emergency happens.

I cannot immediately find the research article(s).

But here's Time magazine's article How to Get Out Alive. It summarizes information on what makes some people faster than others at getting out. "...people in peril experience remarkably similar stages. And the first one--even in the face of clear and urgent danger--is almost always a period of intense disbelief." In many different types of emergencies, a majority of people can end up freezing, a 'reflexive incredulity.'

That, on top of how our brains get slower with each piece of new information, is a problem.

With a once-rehearsed plan in place, I'd think we're significantly reducing what counts as "new" information.

Without a plan, it seems like many people will partially get it "Oh, I have to leave," but still hold onto much of their normal routines. 1000 people leaving the WTC turned off their computers first!.

On an airplane, I count the rows: "If there is an evacuation, I will Leave My Stuff Behind and go forward 4 rows or back 12 rows."

In earthquake country, I tell myself the plan is " Drop, Cover, and Hold On in a quake. (My old reflexes--to try to get to a door--are wrong and unsafe. Doorways aren't safer, most injuries come from walking. Walking in a quake is like walking during severe turbulence.)

The article also points out how many people who freeze will unfreeze once they hear clear instructions. If you're the person whose personal plan has gotten you moving, then be the person who tells other people what to do.

#7 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2008, 08:11 PM:

Kathtyn: On a plane, I look to the closest exit, and then I plan on "swimning: over the seats between me and it.

#8 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2008, 08:35 PM:

As clew @4 pointed out, you don't have to go back all that far in history. I hope that more people will also get to know about the fire at Hamlet (Wikipaedia), also mentioned here in reference to another incident,

#9 ::: Bill Blum ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2008, 09:15 PM:

Fire drills at my employer are always a blast-- trying to convince students to take them seriously is frequently a lost cause.

Thankfully, the computer labs are set up so that I can just lock the keyboard/mouse of all 100+ computers at once-- gives them no excuse to stay in the building.

#10 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2008, 09:22 PM:

I can't find the article I want, but here's part of it...

The author of "Don't Panic: The Psychology of Emergency Egress and Ingress" has a presentation that summarizes his book and covers what researchers know about how people evacuate in emergencies. My take on his summary:

1. People almost never panic, and people rarely are 'selfish.' [i.e. these aren't what to worry about when planning]

2. Deliver clear, unambiguous, and confident information. "If info is given in clear ways that people can safely act upon to escape threat, they usually do." Don't say "don't panic."

3. Since people will work together, appeal to them together ("we can do this").

4. The most common "problematic behavior" is

--a. Delaying exit to safety/ finishing mundane tasks-’freezing’ or ‘disassociation.'

--b. People tend to leave by route they entered, even if closer exits are available

--c. Crowd members can be unaware of physical pressure that others may suffer [simply physics, not from panic]

--d. People unwilling to leave area, or passers-by rubber-necking

--e. Attempts to breach cordons (worried parents, single-minded commuters, etc)

#11 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2008, 10:42 PM:

One day, on the way from the main library at Columbia University to the offices of Chelsea House, I saw an old brick office building burn. I was there almost from the beginning: a man running down the main stairs with a fire extinguisher, having a go at the flames coming up the stairs out of the basement, and sensibly giving up. I was still there when the concentration and temperature of flammable gases inside the building hit the critical point and ignited. What had been a twisting, fast-moving column of smoke coming out of a broken upper window suddenly turned into a pillar of fire. The big broad heavy-framed windows on the top floor (it was a late 19th C. building) exploded outward -- bang, bang, bang -- and went crashing to the pavement four stories below, frames and all. At that moment, standing on the diagonally opposite corner from the fire -- and this was on Broadway, not a narrow street -- I realized I was holding my arm up to shield my face because the fire was too hot to bear.

Most vivid memory: the building had two staircases, and the other stairs were blocked by a wooden double door that was locked with a heavy chain and padlock. The fire ran up the usual staircase so fast that no one could get out past it. Someone who I think worked inside the building was outside when the fire started. What I remember is him repeatedly running at those wooden double doors as hard as he could and throwing himself shoulder-first into them, trying to break them open like a human battering ram. The doors, chain, and padlock held. Then heads started popping up on the roof: the employees had evacuated up onto the roof and crossed over to the roof of the next building in order to escape. They all got out.

There were other stories going on in the meantime.

The memory that changed my life is of how little time there was between the discovery that a fire had taken hold in the basement, and the point at which the air inside ignited and the building became a zero survival zone.

Ever since then, I've been uncomfortable spending more than a few hours or days in a place if I don't know where the nearest fire exit is.

#12 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2008, 10:54 PM:

See also Under a Flaming Sky, where you'll learn of people who insist on going about their routines despite what was (in retrospect) obvious disaster bearing down on them.

As I've said elsewhere: non-survivable conditions are just that: Non-survivable. Try to stay away from those conditions.

#13 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2008, 10:56 PM:

Teresa, that's also a good illustration of why you have someone call the fire department first - you may not have time to spare.

#14 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2008, 11:05 PM:

Fire spreads incredibly rapidly, depending on the fire load in the environment. I still remember the training films we watched more than 20 years ago, when I was training as a firefighter in my hometown.

The fire researchers had filmed the test room where they set fires, and put a timer at the bottom of the image. It took seconds for a wastebasket (i.e., paper) fire to explode into a fully-involved room. Rivers of flames flowed across the ceiling, and the room went black with smoke.

Fire fighting training was full of neat and memorable films, demonstrations, and such. Our final "exam" involved putting out a propane fire. Imagine your gas stove burner, only turned into a vertical position, and made hundreds of times larger. There were valves all along the pipeline leading to the propane tank about 50 yards away. Our task was to take two lines (2" hoses) and an "officer" in the middle, and all of us walked up to the flames. The officer reached out and turned off the valve at the center, putting out the fire. I remember watching the spray of water from my hose getting smaller and smaller as we got closer, and trying to make myself smaller as we got closer. It was intense.

The only thing more exciting than fire is electricity, and the two can go hand-in-hand. We watched plenty of video about fire fighters getting electrocuted on the scene. The local utility company demonstrated how dangerous power lines were, and you'd better believe none of us would ever want to hurry around downed lines after that.

A year ago when lightning struck the tree next to our house (not more than 10 feet from where I was standing at the time), I could smell the burning tree. I ran out into the thunderstorm with a flashlight to make sure our roof wasn't in flames. The electricity had also traveled through the ground and fried several electronic items, including the answering machine, but our house was undamaged -- at least by electricity. The lightning bolt had caused the tree bark to explode off the trunk, and the shrapnel broke a window.

Anyway, fire is an incredible phenomenon. Nevada Barr wrote a fantastic description of a forest fire (or firestorm) in _Firestorm_. Earl Emerson also writes about fires in his books, and he is an active duty fire fighter in Seattle.

#15 ::: Zeborah ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2008, 11:08 PM:

Heh: on Monday our level 2 and 3 fire exits are going to be blocked (with prominent signs I made on Friday) because construction workers are removing the fire escape (to immediately replace it with something better, but in the meantime you wouldn't want to just walk out the door even in an emergency. Climb out a window, hang by one's fingers and drop, maybe; or, even better, crawl onto an adjacent roof). That leaves the main staircase, which is what the vast majority of students always use during fire drills anyway. (If a staff member were on one of the higher levels they could direct students to the proper fire exit. But staff are mostly on level 1, and as we told someone who complained that we didn't properly clear the higher levels, we're not going *up* into a possibly-burning building. If no staff is already up there to clear it then it stays on the board as "not cleared" until the fire service gets there.)

#16 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2008, 12:00 AM:

I expect that if my building burns, it'll be because of something one of us did-- one of the grad students or other miscellaneous researchfolk.

I'm not sure how useful fire drills are beyond the point at which people know the exits. I don't know anyone who reacts to a fire drill as to a fire; there's always time where we look at each other and sigh, gather what needs gathering, talk a bit, then head out into the shrieking and the flashing. In college, everyone envied the people who could sleep through fire alarms because they didn't have to stand outside in their pajamas at three in the morning. There's a point where, "Oh no a fire where is the door?" becomes, "Drat, a fire drill. Let me find my coat and a book to read."

#17 ::: Connie H. ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2008, 07:55 AM:

Let me beat the drum here once again for battery-operated smoke detectors in every major room in your house, even if you have ones that are wired in. The chance of a fire goes higher when your power is out, what with candles and whatnot, so don't depend on the wired ones!

Time is the best weapon you have in a fire situation. Smoke detectors buy you that time.

#18 ::: DavidS ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2008, 08:10 AM:

#7 Terry: On a plane, I look to the closest exit, and then I plan on "swimning: over the seats between me and it.

Terry, I've heard people say this and I've always worried about it. It seems to me that, while this might be the fastest route to the exit for me, I'd probably knock down and block a lot of people who were taking the more standard "walk/crawl to the aisle, along the aisle, and out to the exit" route. I don't want to get out fastest if I trap other people as a result. Do you know if there is any sort of expert opinion on the matter?

#19 ::: Leva Cygnet ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2008, 10:46 AM:

#18 -- a good portion of those people in the aisle are likely going to be reaching into the overhead bins for their luggage, particularly if there's no actual flames to speed them along. Also, no guarantee the person at the emergency exit is going to be able to figure out how to open the door. Or won't freeze when they see the drop. And if the inflatable slide doesn't work, and there's any sort of drop all it takes is one person who balks and doesn't want to jump to delay the whole line. Plus, I'm willing to bet the traffic will try to go forward even if there's a much closer exit to the rear, because that's the way they entered.

Regarding evacuations from buildings -- one other thing I always do is not just figure out the exits, but figure out what I'm going to do if it's a guy with a gun. Where are the solid, locking doors without glass in them that I can put between me and the bad guy? Where can I find effective hiding places? Where would I be trapped with no exit?

(Granted, my industry tends to have a larger-than-normal percentage of pissed off customers, and "nutcase with a gun" is always in the back of my mind.)

-- Leva

#20 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2008, 12:03 PM:

Kathryn@10: did the cry-wolf syndrome show up anywhere on that list? The Boskone from Hell(TM)(*) is an extreme example, but there have been enough bogus alarms at my 7-year-old office park that they tend to be ignored unless there's a PA announcement to go with them. (Unlike diatryma@16, these aren't drills, just malfs.) Working in a new, 3-story, concrete-and-brick building probably contributes to a sense of safety, however misplaced; we're more likely to be saved by the fact that everybody uses the fire stairs by habit. (I can't remember ever seeing an unburdened employee take an elevator).

Connie@17: Amen -- especially now that the most common detectors handle both smoke and CO,

(*) Reported: new system, gain at 11 to make sure it got certified. Observed: fire alarms almost every hour (some unreported, some reported due to trivial causes -- a crowd exiting a program item, very cold air coming up a stairwell when a door to the outside was opened).

#21 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2008, 12:45 PM:

DavidS: The closest I have to hand is Jim: Zero Survival situations are to be avoided. I expect the aisles to be blocked. I expect people to be foolish. I expect to be moving quickly.

The amount of hindrance I may cause will be less than that from those blocking the aisles.

One of the things I do recall from readings on disasters like plane crashes is that those who got out of crashes with post impact loss of life; did what they had to do.

I'll help people when I get to the door (i.e. is shove them out the plane as fast as I possibly can), but I'm not going to get myself killed to be polite.

I say this with the smell of burning brush in the air, and ash on my car. When I retired last night Santa Anita Canyon was still burning, and it's not stoppedd yet; temps toward 100 and breezy; I don't expect it to be out before tomorrow; it's not eight miles from my house, as a crow flies.

#22 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2008, 01:28 PM:

When I fly, I request a seat next to an emergency exit. I'm big -- I can open the door. And I like to think that in an emergency I'll be able to help others out.

In fires: Stay low. There's a huge difference in temperature between floor level and standing height.

Before opening a door: Put the back of your hand against it. If it's burning hot, or you feel it bulging toward you, don't open it. (Reason for the back of the hand? If you burn all the skin off the back of your hand, your ability to grasp isn't affected.)

Know where you're going to go. When I go to a con, when I get to my room, I physically walk to each fire exit on that floor, counting the doors along the way. Paranoid? Yeah. Do I want to live if things go horribly wrong? Yeah.

I have a flashlight in arm's reach at all times. You can keep your fully-loaded pistol for all that. A flashlight is a real survival tool.

From Under a Flaming Sky: If a trainload of people show up in your town, them all blackened with soot and the paint blistered from the railway cars, and the conductors and engineers are begging you to get on board and get the heck out of town, go. There's a chance that they know something that you don't.

Everyone: Go out and buy a smoke/CO detector today. If you already have plenty, give it to a friend or relative who doesn't. We had a horrible case down in Stratford just a few weeks ago: a trailer fire. The fire started near the woodstove next to the front door, which was too close to the walls and wasn't properly heat-shielded (self-installation vice pro-up-to-code job). A gentleman, his wife, and teenaged daughter all dead. And they didn't die well. The teenaged son transported to a level one trauma center with burns, smoke inhalation, and lacerations (he'd been staying with friends at another trailer and tried to rescue his family). The dead were all found near the back door, which was blocked by deep snow. The smoke detector ... had dead batteries.

Friends, don't let this happen to you.

If you've been in or near a fire, go to an emergency room even if you're seemingly okay. Carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide have a sneaky way of killing you hours later.

Oh--may I recommend Fire in Boston's Coconut Grove by Paul Benzaquin?

#23 ::: Edward Oleander ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2008, 01:57 PM:

#6 -- Kathryn, I think that extends to almost any emergency... without any training, people will just block danger they can't/don't/won't comprehend.

Last Wednesday while exiting the freeway, I happened across a fresh rear-end accident that had one car burning merrily. The drivers (two middle-age ladies) were standing not 20 feet from the cars. No police were yet on-scene, so I pulled off about 100 ft from the wreck.

Although they saw me, neither woman would respond to my shouts and waving, so I had to go to them and physically force them away from the cars. One of them tried several times to go back to her SUV to try and move it before it too was completely engulfed. The rear car partially exploded when we were about 75 feet away. The other driver STILL tried to return to her SUV. A highway worker who stopped had to help me restrain her.

I don't think she was capable of taking in the real situation because she had never had any instruction/training to encompass it. We need to include basic emergency awareness, if not actual response, in our schools.

#24 ::: Velma ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2008, 02:26 PM:

As someone whose family was burned out of two apartment buildings in the 1970s (this was in Harlem, and we're still pretty sure the landlord was behind it: seventeen fires in three or four weeks, all during daylight hours), I've gotten good at knowing where the exits are, and checking the locations of fire extinguishers. I'm also a runner/searcher for my office. It's disconcerting to realize, every time there's a fire drill, that a good percentage of the staff don't know where the four fire towers are in the building, and who think that "fire drill" means "amble up to the front desk, and chatter during the explanations."

#25 ::: Doctor Science ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2008, 02:45 PM:

It occurs to me that one of the problems with emergency drills is that there is some behavior that it is necessary when it's a real emergency, but that is imprudent during a drill. I'm thinking in particular of leaving valuable property behind. If you leave your laptop running for a fire drill, you may well come back to find no laptop.

How do you train a mass of people to do things they shouldn't do in a drill?

#26 ::: DavidS ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2008, 07:05 PM:

#19 and #21: Thanks! Those answers make sense to me.

#27 ::: Adam Ek ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2008, 07:48 AM:

Another sign of the company I work for going downhill. In our last location we had fire drills 4 times/year.

In our new location we haven't had a fire drill in over 18 months. The newest building has never had a fire drill. Our fire plans are so out of date that the evacuation map for our building has us gather on lawn that doesn't exist anymore, it's under the new building.

#28 ::: Connie H. ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2008, 07:50 AM:

>How do you train a mass of people to do things they shouldn't do in a drill?

How about a prize to the floor that reaches the evacuation point quickest and with the most percentage of participants?

I remember reading that emergency evacuations of airplanes get tested by hiring college students to try to get out as fast as possible -- to motivate them, they offered cash incentives depending on who was out first and how fast....

#29 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2008, 08:49 AM:

Fire spreads quickly, cars are flammable, people stand too close - here's a smoking car 2 minutes after I heard a crunch outside (the operator had just told me the police and fire service were on their way); here it is five minutes later as the fire engine is arriving just out of sight round the corner. It's the only time I've called the emergency services, and I just about managed to keep all the information straight. If there were a how to deal with emergencies course for schools, one of the things that should be done is to have a simulated call to the emergency services.

#30 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2008, 12:00 PM:

Neil Wilcox: Yep. I've had to call 911/999 once. I was pleased that everything kicked in.

Friend and I were riding horses, and we were just turned onto the last 1/3rd mile to the barn. Guy across the wash called out, asking if either of us had a phone; he was having a heart attack.

We did have a phone, it was back at the barn (this was before either of us had our own cell-phones). I told Matt to go to the guy, and told Leus to run (this was contrary to training; we never let the horses go faster than a walk after the downleg turn to the barn), because Matt wasn't much of a rider then.

Matt had the key to the gate, so I jumped the fence (trusting my horse to ground-tie), ran to the tack room, grabbed the phone, dialed the number and started jogging back to the fence.

Got on the horse and was talking to the operator while galloping back to the guy. They EMS guys were there in about five minutes.

Yes, people need to practice that sort of call.

#31 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2008, 10:08 PM:

Terry, I've called 911 for myself often enough that I was pretty good both times I had to call it for someone else. Practice, practice!

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