Life Safety Challenges in the Hybrid Workplace

The much-heralded shift to a hybrid workplace model, where employees will spend only part of their time in the office and the rest of the time working remotely, offers many advantages. However, it also creates significant challenges for maintaining effective office life safety programs.  Property Managers, Fire Safety Directors, and even local Fire Departments will need to adapt their training requirements, strategies, and expectations in order to accommodate this new workplace arrangement. Fortunately, several solutions are emerging.

Tech companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Twitter, as well as many large non-tech corporations, have announced that a mixed model will be the new normal going forward. Employees will work in the office part of the time and remotely the rest of the time. Benefits include more flexibility for work-life balance while still retaining opportunities for collaboration and acculturation, and a reduced need for expensive office space.

One overlooked downside to the new hybrid arrangements is emergency preparedness. Current office life safety programs rely heavily on having a cohort of trained emergency team members (tenant floor wardens) on site during normal business hours. Most people working in office buildings only participate in one fire drill a year (if that) where instruction is limited to a few basics. This highly limited training is offset by providing more robust, comprehensive training to a team of volunteer floor wardens. So long as well-trained floor wardens are on-site to provide leadership during an emergency, offering only cursory training to the rest of the occupants can still result in successful emergency response.

The hybrid office environment disrupts this life safety framework.  If trained floor wardens may or may not be on site at any given time, there could be no one around to lead the response when alarms go off. As a result, Property Managers will not be able to assume they have functional floor warden teams in place.  (Some companies that are currently experimenting with an unassigned office plan, where there are no assigned desks or offices and employees change locations daily, are already running up against this issue.)

Anticipating this problem, some life safety program managers are considering greatly expanding the number of tenants who receive floor warden training. However, this is a tough sell – recruiting a sufficient number of floor wardens is already a challenge; doubling that number could prove impossible. Other life safety directors are mulling whether to require that employees who will continue to always work in the office full-time to serve as floor wardens, or to coordinate the days trained floor wardens are on-site.

However, as office workers adopt increasingly staggered schedules, relying on live training and fire drills becomes less effective.  How valuable is an annual fire drill when 40 percent of building occupants will not be on site that day? How many live training sessions would a building need to conduct in order to ensure all floor wardens were able to participate?

Fortunately, just as technology has made remote work possible, life safety technologies can also help overcome these problems.  Online life safety training and drills allows all building occupants and floor wardens to participate in training. And new Virtual Reality (VR) life safety tools enable everyone to participate in drills even while off-site.  VR fire drills and life safety training allow for more comprehensive training than live drills. Training and drills can be conducted whenever convenient, on the first day on the job or when a tenant first moves in, rather than having to wait 11 months for the next annual session.  Reporting tools allow life safety managers to verify that all the right people have completed training.

Unfortunately, local Fire Departments can be a major impediment to the use of these technology tools. While a few departments, such as FDNY and LAFD, have long allowed online training and/or drills, and a few other departments authorized their use during the pandemic, most Fire Departments have refused to allow technology-focused life safety training and drills to satisfy fire code requirements.

This reluctance to embrace new solutions is understandable.  Fire Departments would need to write guidelines for when and how new technologies can be used, and what they must contain. Some fear that allowing digital training and drills would make it easier for buildings to provide only generic training that isn’t customized to the building (a misguided fear, as all good online/digital life safety programs deliver building-specific instruction).

However, as more buildings and organizations incorporate technology solutions, Fire Departments and perhaps even the code-writing bodies such as NFPA and International Code Council, will need to address how and where digital tools can be utilized.

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