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
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
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
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
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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