Canada's Condominium Magazine

When the unlikely and unimaginable happens: tips for how to safely escape high rises when disaster strikes

Let’s face it, even though high-rise condominiums are built to the highest standard of safety, with built in systems that would put a luxury house to shame, the regular fire drills make us nervous. Statistically, you rarely hear of an actual “emergency” in a condominium high-rise. Also, emergency response teams are well-trained and equipped for potential emergencies. Never-the-less, even the best protected property still relies on its residents being aware of safety procedures. This is why buildings often have emergency drills.

No matter how safe you feel, when the power goes out, or you hear an alarm, the first thing you think of is: you are several floors up — what are my exit options?

 

First of all, rule number one: stay calm. Knowing your exits and planning your contingencies is the best way to ensure you remain “relatively” calm if the unimaginable and unlikely happens. Remember, your building’s designers and builders have taken extreme caution to ensure that you are protected as much as possible — so remain calm and practice your exits ahead of time.

Safety comes from knowing

High rise buildings usually have many planned exit routes and definite safety proceedures. But, do you know them? Unlike airline travel, where the airline reminds you on each and every flight what to do in an emergency — the “exits are there, and there and there” they say, pointing — in your condominium, do you have it all memorized? Where to go, what to do? If it’s a fire, do you know if you should use the elevator or not? What do you do about your elderly neighbours? [We previously ran a story on how to form a “Condo Community Alliance” — which is highly recommended — found here>>]

 

In an emergency, don’t forget to hit the fire alarm. Don’t always assume it’s directly connected to the fire department. After you escape via your pre-planned route, call them directly.

 

To Elevator or not to Elevator?

Most experts say, in an emergency, you should never use the elevator. Your building’s guidelines should indicate what to do. What does your condominium safety plan say? Your systems may be unique. You should abide by the safety guidelines of your condominium. But, like the owner’s manuals of a car, often these rules are left unread. Emergency Preparedness step number one — read the safety guidelines for your community, check out the posted exit routes, and ask questions if you’re not sure.

 

 

Generally, though, depending on the fire, there are risks associated with elevators, depending on their systems. For starters, the heat from the fire may activate the call buttons, which could potentially send you right into the flames. The smoke could then interfere with the light-sensitive “eye” of the elevator, causing the door to remain open and trap you on the floor with the fire.

The elevator also poses a risk because fires and other disasters could affect the electrical wiring and cause the elevator to stop working. Unless your condominium guidelines advise the elevator’s use in a fire, general advice is to avoid it.

 

Know your exits. They should be well marked in your condominium.

 

Know your exits

Know your exits ahead of time so that you are able to quickly scope them out — if the unlikely and unimaginable happens. Even when you know the route, in an emergency things can happen that change the best route. Is a fire blocking your path to an exit? What’s your plan B? Is something blocking the exit in a way that would keep you from escaping? What’s the next alternative? Is the fire escape outside your window secure, or is it unstable? Has it been damaged in any way since the fire (or other emergency) started? Can you escape quickly and safely, or is it safer for you to stay where you are until emergency responders have the situation under control?

Thinking of your escape contingencies ­— or asking management for advice — ahead of time is the best approach.

Some Helpful Facts and Tips

Here are some interesting facts that should help you to remain calm and take control of the situation.

The main thing to remember during an emergency is that your building’s designers and builders have taken extreme caution to ensure that you are protected as much as possible. The building has been designed with fire-resistant materials and other safety measures designed to keep fires from spreading. Because of this, you should be relatively safe as long as you avoid the floor with the fire.

Fire alarm systems are designed to alert occupants of smoke and fires. Some of these include smoke detectors, thermal detectors, and sprinkler flow switches. Stairwells typically have red manual pull stations nearby, which you can activate if there is a fire on your floor. Doing so will cause the system to alert responding firefighters of the approximate location of the fire. However, it may not be connected to the Fire Department, so you must notify emergency services of your situation.

Never assume that someone else has already made the call. Other occupants may be unaware of the fire, they may have been unable to access a phone, or they may also assume that someone else has called for help.

Be cautious and pay attention to your surroundings. Look out for any falling debris so you do not risk being harmed or trapped as you attempt to exit. Before opening doors, take the proper precautions. Feel the door itself as well as the door knob and hinges. If it is hot, then look down at the crack beneath the door to see if you notice any smoke or flames. If not, open the door slightly. If you see or smell smoke, feel or hear air pressure, or notice anything else that signals immediate danger, close the door quickly and look for another escape route. As you exit, close all doors behind you to keep the fire from spreading. However, do not lock any doors. You do not want to trap anyone or inhibit the firefighters’ ability to access the fire in order to put it out.

If you are unable to escape on your own, remain calm. Find a safe place, and stay there unless moving is necessary. If you can find a window and open it, wave to crowds and emergency responders so that they are aware of your location. This will help them to find and rescue you. Do not attempt to jump unless you are instructed to do so and have a safe place to land.

As mentioned above, stairs and fire escapes are incredibly useful. They are often your best means of survival, as long as they are structurally safe. If they have been damage in any way, then you need to evaluate the damage done and create a new path that takes the safest routes possible. If the stairs or blocked or the fire escape has been damaged in any way, those options may still be feasible if you can do some creative planning. Is the fire and resulting damage on a lower level than you are now? Can you take the fire escape a partial way down, climb through a window, and then take the stairs to safety?

The important thing is to remain calm so that you can thinking logically and rationally. Although it is certainly a frightening situation, do not allow the fear to consume you. Focus on getting to safety, and then feel free to break down once you are out of harm’s way.

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