With a widely available vaccine to COVID-19 not expected for another 12 to 18 months at the earliest, commercial office property managers will be challenged to maintain their life safety and risk management programs. Gathering people together for fire drills and staff & floor warden training is now untenable, and yet buildings remain responsible for complying with fire codes and maintaining safe work environments.
Staff and Floor Warden Training
On the training side of the equation, two alternate solutions are readily available:
Live Training via Webinar. One easy solution is to conduct live staff and floor warden training via webinar. Instructors can cover all the same material and present all the same slides. Trainees can still ask questions. Sign-in-sheets can document participation. The format can present challenges when training building staff that don’t have regular access to computers, but by and large this is an easy substitute.
Online Training. Another readily available solution, online life safety training is available for building occupants, floor wardens, and building staff. Many providers serve this market. Online training is inexpensive and can be set up within 24 hours. Systems deliver standard best-practice training and can be customized to each facility. Most online training systems provide reporting capabilities to document participation. Unlike live training, online training remains available 24/7 and can be taken whenever convenient, a particularly helpful attribute when tenants will be returning to work slowly, over a long period of time. And major-city fire departments have long approved online training systems for use to satisfy code-required staff and floor warden training.
Conducting fire drills without gathering people poses more challenges. In addition to the format, questions remain as to whether the alternate methods will satisfy Fire Departments requirements (more on this below). Two main options for fire drills are available:
Instructional Fire Drills. With instructional drills, rather than crowd into a stairwell, attendees participate in a online training course covering procedures for fire relocation and evacuation. This training must provide building-specific details: where stairwells are located, the number of floors down to go in relocation, the sound of the alarm tone, the location of external assembly areas, etc. Although instructional drills don’t provide the muscle memory of actually entering the stairwell, they are a good substitute and can provide more information that traditional fire drills.
The Fire Department of New York has long allowed this format for some fire and non-fire drills, but few if any other departments have taken a position on this option.
Virtual Reality Fire Drills. Another new alternative that technology has made possible is to conduct drills through virtual reality. Buildings create a photo-realistic 3D model of their building interior. Participants can then use a smartphone, tablet, desktop, or VR headset to move throughout the building virtually, without leaving their desk. They can exit their suite, locate pull stations and extinguishers, see how to use emergency communication devices, find all exit stairwells, descend to their relocation floor, and fully evacuate the building to their external assembly area.
Like online life safety training, VR drills can be done whenever convenient – upon move-in for new tenants, during lunch hours, etc. Systems can document who participated. And they can incorporate more educational material than traditional fire drills typically provide, such as instructions on how to use a stairwell emergency phone or fire extinguisher.
Several fire departments are evaluating whether VR drills would satisfy fire code requirements, however at this point, to our knowledge, none have rendered an official position.
Fire Department Approval
Some Fire Departments have already provided clear guidance for how to handle training and drills during this period of social distancing. Denver and New York, for example, are allowing buildings to postpone their fire drills for the remainder of this year. Most departments, however, have not provided guidance, leaving building management teams to determine on their own whether and how to comply with requirements.
At the end of the day, in most jurisdictions it will remain up to each building’s fire safety director and management team to determine what constitutes a good faith effort to comply with regulations and promote a safe workplace environment. From a risk management perspective, doing something is preferable to skipping training and drills, even when the local fire department has said it will not enforce code requirements for the time being. Being able to demonstrate that an alternate program was enacted goes a long way toward reducing legal and financial risks.