Building Evacuations: What You Need to Know

The last in our 3-part series on the core emergency response procedures, this post focuses on building evacuations.


While full building evacuations are the norm for low-rise and many mid-rise properties, they are rare in high-rises, and for good reason.  As we discussed in our post on Internal Relocation, it is usually unnecessary to vacate an entire high-rise building.  And the very act of evacuating thousands of people creates its own risks. For many people, walking down 30 or more flights of stairs imposes physical challenges, which can lead to injury.  Emptying a large building can take hours. Traffic in the immediate area can be disrupted.

Because of these potential risks and hurdles, high-rise building teams are always careful about initiating full building evacuations, and they need to make sure the proper planning and training occurs ahead of time.

Floor Status Reports

A key planning task is to determine how floor warden teams will report their floor status to the Fire Safety Director.  During an internal relocation, when only a few floors are moving, this can be done easily through emergency phones, staff radios, even runners. But that system will likely break down in a full building evacuation, where scores of reports need to be relayed.

One good solution is to ask a lead or primary warden from each floor or suite to swing by the Fire Control Room or incident command station on their way out of the building. And because of the sheer number of reports to be collected, if staffing allows, post a junior staff member outside the FCR door (or in the main lobby) with a clipboard to collect reports. This way, the Fire Safety Director hears from one person rather than 40, keeping him or her free for other critical tasks.

Assembly Areas

Another key planning considerations for building evacuations is selecting an appropriate external assembly area for occupants to gather once outside. Some cities require buildings to make the selection, however many don’t, and many buildings choose to leave the decision up to each tenant organization.

However, this often leads to problems, as invariably tenants select gathering spots that are too close to the building.  Assembly areas need to be at least a block away.  Some jurisdictions site a 300-foot minimum, but the general idea is that occupants need to be a) far enough away to be safe from objects falling off the building, and b) out of the way of arriving firefighters.  Allowing occupants to congregate on sidewalks immediately around the building only slows down firefighters’ response, as they now need to spend time clearing the area.

We recommend buildings designate a primary and an alternate assembly area, and encourage their tenants to use them. Having everyone go to the same location helps speed up communications, especially when it’s time to give the all-clear.  It makes it less likely you’ll have occupants convening too close to the building. And it demonstrates that building ownership and management clearly advised that tenants move to a safe location.

We still hear frequently from building teams that they don’t want to make their occupants cross a busy street to reach an assembly area. While it’s always good to avoid it where possibly (and you certainly cannot direct them to cross a highway), in most downtown urban areas, crossing streets is simply unavoidable.

Property teams in cities with extreme weather (Phoenix in August, Minneapolis in January) may also want to consider options for temporary shelter during building evacuations. Buildings can make reciprocal hosting agreements, where they allow evacuees to shelter in their lobby during adverse conditions.

Finally, buildings should also designate an external assembly area for building staff. Everyone on the building team should know where they can expect to find colleagues, conduct a headcount, and regroup. This can be the same assembly area you recommend for tenants, or it can be in a different location, perhaps a bit closer to the building and emergency responders, while still being out of their way.

Underground Parking

Buildings with underground parking levels face another difficult issue. During building evacuations, occupants are not supposed to get their cars. It delays the evacuation, creates more traffic near the building as firefighters are arriving, and can put people in danger below ground. But the reality is that some occupants will do this regardless of instructions. Leaving parking gate arms in normal operations could lead to backups of drivers waiting to get out of the garage. While no one wants to reward bad behavior by making it easier for occupants to do the wrong thing, neither do you want to risk trapping people below grade during an emergency. On sum, the better response is to raise the parking gate arms during building evacuations to allow free passage for departing vehicles.

Full-Building Evacuation Drills

While full building evacuations are not to be taken lightly (and hence most jurisdictions do not require full building evacuation drills), conducting full evac drills does have value. The only way to truly know how long it will take to empty a building is by practicing under realistic conditions, with fully loaded stairwells and thousands of people on the move. A full evac drill helps building staff identify the choke points and problem areas, and explore alternative strategies.

The most common tactic for mitigating overcrowding in the stairwells is to conduct the evacuation in stages, rather than all at once.  For example, in a 40-story building, a fire safety director could first make a PA announcement to floors 1 through 10, 21 through 30, and 41 through 50. The remaining floors would be directed to begin moving once stairwell traffic has passed. Other staging strategies involve moving the floors closest to the threat first and working to the furthest away.  While staging can only be employed in low-threat situations, such as for a power failure, it can greatly help reduce congestion and delays in stairwells.

Running a full building evacuation drill in a large high-rise requires extensive planning and advanced communications. In addition to tenants, building staff should notify neighboring buildings, fire and police departments, transit agencies (if the building is near transit stops/stations), and the city’s office of emergency management. Provide enough advanced notice to allow time to address any concerns and make adjustments.

Have questions about evacuations and how to plan for one in your own building or organization? Contact us.