Office Life Safety Programs Must Change

The hybrid workplace is eroding the effectiveness of life safety programs in commercial office buildings.  With some form of hybrid here to stay for the foreseeable future, it’s time to change how we manage life safety in the office environment. The best path forward is shifting towards a more all-hands approach to training.

To date, the owners and managers of commercial office buildings could provide very limited life safety training to all building occupants (in the form of an annual fire drill) because they could rely on having trained floor wardens in place to lead the initial emergency response on each floor.  To varying degrees, this structure worked well for decades.

The hybrid workplace disrupts this model.  With occupancy rates running 40 to 70 percent on good days, property managers and employers can no longer assume they have functional floor warden teams in place at any given time. While it will take years for a new normal to settle in, the strong embrace of the hybrid model suggests that some form of hybrid is here to stay.  With a key leg of the life safety stool no longer reliable, it’s time to rethink how office environments structure their life safety programs.

Office buildings began making adjustments early in the pandemic. Most adaptations so far have fallen into two categories: operational changes, such as training more floor wardens, and a greater reliance on technology, such as online floor warden training, mobile apps with response steps, virtual reality training, etc.).

While operational changes can help, they do not solve the problem. Training a greater number of floor wardens increases the likelihood that knowledgeable people will be on site when alarms go off, but it’s only improving the odds.

Similarly, technology can help by increasing access to training and providing more real-time response information when people actually need it. But if those tech tools are still distributing response steps that assume floor wardens are in place, simply adding more mobile/digital tools doesn’t solve the problem, either.

The most likely path forward is to improve the training provided to all building occupants. Floor warden programs can and should continue – where they are working well, they will remain an important component. But as many property and facility managers will attest, recruiting volunteer floor wardens on every floor has always been difficult to impossible, and the hybrid model only increases that challenge.   To mitigate risks, employers and commercial real estate managers should look to enhanced training for everyone.

Expanded training for all building occupants needn’t be as in-depth as current floor warden training, but it needs to cover more than what is currently taught in annual fire drills.  Fire drills are essential, but they do not prepare occupants to respond to a wide range of threats.  In most US cities, no instruction is provided during fire drills – occupants merely evacuate or relocate via the nearest stairwell.  And evacuation/relocation is only one of the core response procedures occupants need to know. Shelter in place is a critical capability in today’s security climate, used in a wide range of scenarios – explosion threats, gunfire outside the building, high winds, protests, earthquakes, etc.   Medical emergencies are the most common scenario at office buildings, yet those are not typically addressed in fire drills.  The same is true for other topics – earthquakes, bomb threats, power failures, tornadoes.

The main hurdles are not time and cost – expanding life safety training to all building occupants can be done relatively easily and inexpensively. Excellent online life safety training is readily available and can cover the essential topics in as little as 10 minutes. Similarly, in-person training sessions can address the key response procedures adequately in 15 to 30 minutes. Fire drills can be expanded – even a few additional minutes of instruction can make a significant difference.

Tenants can also help by making life safety training part of their new-hire orientation and spotlighting the issue during events like National Preparedness Month in September.

It will likely take years for the various code bodies and local fire departments to wrestle with the issue of floor warden programs and provide official guidance and recommendations. But employers and the owners & managers of commercial office buildings may need to move sooner, as they bear most of the risk for any adverse outcomes. As is often the case, industry will need to lead the changes.

For more information on how to adapt your life safety program to the hybrid workplace, contact