Fire Evacuation Drill with a Difference

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I had been given the task to organize a fire evacuation drill specifically for only a certain area in a building.

As ridiculous as it may seem, there was a very good reason for doing this.

Firstly, this is a high technology manufacturing facility that manufactures products under extremely clean and dust-free conditions. With clean room facilities standard that goes down to class 10, it is very, very clean indeed. As such it is very important that dust do not enter into the clean room under manufacturing conditions. So in the past, all evacuation drills were done just before we had a planned plant shutdown for maintenance.

Secondly, during the past few years, whenever an evacuation drill was organized, the administration offices were usually closed, and all the workers will be making use of the opportunity to take their vacation. Practically nobody will be around. Even the production workers will be taking their vacation when they have stopped all their machines and handed over the plant for shutdown maintenance.

So when the office workers say that they do not know what to do in a fire situation, we can fully understand why. They had not been taking part in any fire evacuation drill before. It is not enough just to describe what will happen in an evacuation to them - somehow, we have to organize an actual evacuation drill for the office workers themselves. The challenge is to do it while the manufacturing production is still operating.

Any mistake that will cause people from the manufacturing clean rooms to evacuate will be disastrous to the company. The stakes are high.

The fire protection alarm system in our building is wired in such a way that any triggering of the alarm by activating a break glass, smoke detector, heat detector or sprinkler flow switch will eventually trigger the general alarm for the whole building if it is not acknowledged and reset back within 3 minutes. This is a safety feature to ensure that somebody actually goes and check the situation whenever there is an alarm.

In our fire evacuation plan, all the occupants had been trained to open the doors of the nearest exit point and escape from the building whenever it is confirmed that a real fire or emergency has occurred. This will ensure that nobody is left inside the building if there is a real emergency.

However, as far as our manufacturing clean room is concerned, this will be disastrous. All the products, rooms, machinery and clean room environment will be destroyed once the doors were opened to the atmosphere. It will take hours to recover back to the original condition. The losses will be enormous.

Although normal communications through supervisors and public address systems can be done, still there is too much at stake to take that risk.

That was our first option. Relying on human communications leaves too much on uncertainty. We have to make it completely idiot-proof. This option is not fool proof. Somebody might claim that they did not get the message.

Our second option was to re-program the fire alarm system to exclude all the areas in the clean rooms. This option was a bit tricky as there were some uncertainty as to how the alarm bells were wired up. We had to admit that although everything was drawn on paper on the as-built drawings, we were not 100% sure whether the re-programming will cover all the alarm bells inside the clean rooms or not. Moreover, there had been some renovation done on the existing building and nobody had taken the trouble to test the alarm bells then. So this option was also shelved.

Our third option was to re-wire the existing bells specifically only for the offices, so that we can trigger only the office areas. This seems a pretty good option, except that the preparation re-wiring work will have to be done at the installation itself. During the re-wiring period, the office itself would not be protected by the fire alarm system. In addition, the original wires would need to be disturbed and re-looped - something engineering people would not be keen to do - as it might give rise to other unexpected problems.

Our fourth option - to fabricate and install addition bells with triggering switches and fix them just beside the existing bells seemed to be the best option. By using additional bells, batteries, switches and getting them wired up at a portable stand in a workshop, they could be tested, carried along and put in place within a very short time. The best feature of this option is that the original fire alarm wiring need not be disturbed at all.

Choosing the fourth option, we fabricated three sets of alarm bell triggering units and placed them at the appropriate places at the offices. When the time for triggering the alarm bells came, an order was issued through the walkie-talkie and the bells were triggered by the technicians at those stations.

So, we managed to organize the fire evacuation drill for the offices only. Nobody evacuated from the manufacturing clean rooms because the bells were not sounded there. All the office workers had their evacuation drill and everything went on smoothly.

A potentially huge manufacturing loss was avoided by adopting a simple idea. A workable idea born out of necessity.

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