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Rising to the Challenge

HIGH-RISE BUILDING MANAGERS face unique considerations in a disaster. The key to a successful response is advance preparation through the development of an emergency action plan (EAP) that has been truly exercised within the security environment. To develop an EAP successfully, security must coordinate with the building’s life safety and property-management departments as well as with local first responders including fire, police, and emergency-management personnel.

Not surprisingly, given its experience on 9-11, New York City has taken the lead among U.S. cities in developing EAP programs. After 9-11, the Fire Safety Directors Association (FSDA) established a task force to study various evacuation modes for high-rise commercial buildings and to determine best practices for mass departures from high-rise buildings. In 2006, the FSDA joined forces with the New York City Fire Department/Bureau of Fire Prevention to develop the first formalized EAP in the United States. It drew, among other sources, on recommendations from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Through the EAP designed by the task force, high-rise building owners are required to designate an official program director, enhance building communications, formalize evacuation modes, regulate the use of elevators, maintain evacuation routes, and develop a training program.

Designating Staff

The most critical element in any high-rise emergency is the capability and experience of the person who will take charge in the critical minutes of an incident prior to the arrival of first responders. The EAP requires that a high-rise facility have a director who has been previously certified as a fire-safety director. In New York City, all certified fire-safety directors are being retrained to serve as EAP directors. In other cases, the security director could fill this position.

The EAP director, or a designated deputy, must be on duty during regular business hours and when a certain number of people are in the building. The director will also designate other personnel to be part of the emergency response team to assist with evacuations. These employees should be drawn from the organization that runs the facility and from tenant businesses; those involved would include building management staff. There may also be facility teams to assist with shutting down critical operations or performing essential services before they, too, shelter-in-place, relocate, or evacuate.

Directors must know the National Incident Management System (NIMS) so that they can interface with first responders and anticipate how to respond to various threat levels. They must also understand the nature of the threats that might need a response.

The director must be able to ask a series of questions immediately after an incident and take action based on the answers. For example, the EAP suggests that the director start by defining the emergency and then asking: Where is it located? What has occurred? What part of the EAP plan has to be implemented? What actions need to be taken? After the initial reaction, the director must continue the questioning: What is now known? What may I assume will happen by my actions? These thinking segments need to be repeated many times until an incident is declared over and the director can move into recovery mode.


There are two aspects to communication in an emergency—one concerns contacting key personnel with response duties; the other relates to notification of the general building population to let them know whether they need to evacuate, remain in place, or take some other action.

Key personnel. Once an incident has occurred within the building or a threat has been made, the director must be able to quickly contact and assemble key personnel. There should be a plan in place for establishing communications with these key personnel so that they can be assembled at the fire command center. In addition to the EAP director, the team should include the security supervisor, the HVAC manager, the elevator engineer, and the property manager. (The floor captains remain at their posts or evacuate with their floor.)

General populace. High-rise firealarm communication systems are the primary way of communicating with occupants during an emergency. The system’s type of voice communication may vary from an automatic announcement to a two-way manual voice system.

To further enhance building communications within a structure, some facilities have added a separate public address system similar to those used in healthcare as a secondary means of communication. The organization’s IT department may be able to make additional emergency notifications via desktop computers or mobile devices.

The initial EAP announcement to building occupants should include information on what has occurred, the physical areas affected by the incident, and what part of the EAP plan and evacuation mode is being implemented. At a minimum, the director should make updated announcements at 15-to 30-minute intervals.


When the EAP is being developed, the director must work out various evacuation modes that would be optimal for different emergency scenarios. All of the plans must also take into consideration building factors, such as stairwell fail-safe type locking mechanisms, turnstiles, revolving doors, non-reentry floors in the stairwell, and the number of exit doors at the street level—all of which could potentially hamper a large-scale evacuation in an emergency. An evacuation specialist should be asked to review these plans.

At the time of an incident, the director must determine which evacuation mode to use based on the situation. The director must then designate the evacuation route and implement a plan to deal with occupants who have special needs.

Modes. The director, as noted, must determine the best mode of evacuation for various emergencies. The choices are to remain in place, relocate occupants to a different area, partially evacuate the building, or conduct a full evacuation.

Remain in place. In this mode, occupants are told to remain at their workstations or in their work areas. This is done if, for example, there is a contained incident and some occupants would have to move through the hazard to be evacuated. Similarly, if an incident has occurred outside the building that creates dangerous conditions for anyone who leaves, occupants may be told to sit tight.

The challenge in this mode is how to prevent occupants from leaving. Adequate training, clear and frequent announcements, and assigning designated personnel to exits can help.

Security directors must be mindful of all factors before issuing the shelter-in-place order. Sometimes there are no good options or conditions change suddenly. For example, after the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center on 9-11, security ordered occupants of the south tower to stay put. Many were killed when the second plane hit, but security was basing its decision at the time on the knowledge that if the occupants of the south tower had evacuated, they faced death from debris falling from the north tower.

Relocation. Another mode, called “inbuilding-relocation area,” means moving occupants out of their work area to a designated safe place within the building. Predetermined safe areas to which people can be relocated in an emergency should be set out in the EAP.

The director must consider various factors before establishing these designated safe zones. The relocation area must be large enough to handle the expected number of occupants and easy for occupants to get to using the stairs, elevators, or a combination of both. It must also have adequate facilities, such as toilets, first-aid supplies, and running water—or at least stockpiles of potable water.

The director should select areas with a variety of characteristics to fit different potential scenarios. An internal, aboveground area might serve best in a biohazard emergency, whereas a basement area might be more suitable for some weather incidents.

Partial evacuation. As the name indicates, a partial building evacuation means emptying some areas of the building but not all. This mode of evacuation might be appropriate if a threat affects only a portion of the building.

For example, in the case of an interior chemical release, it may be that the director can ascertain, by knowing ahead of time what floors are covered by the various building HVAC zones, which areas are affected. The director can then evacuate only the people in that zone.

Full evacuation. The full-evacuation mode is, as the name implies, used to evacuate the entire building. Timing is important in a full evacuation because of the large number of people who must be moved in a short amount of time and because the mode would not be invoked if it were not critical to get everyone out quickly.

When a director can use elevators in the plan, it is possible to evacuate 12 percent of the building population within the first 5 minutes of implementing this mode. To activate this part of the plan, all elevators need to be recalled to the lobby. Each elevator in use should be controlled in the service mode and a designated staff person should ride in the elevator on these evacuation trips. The staff persons must be in communication with the building’s fire command center via the elevator intercom or portable radios. All staffed elevators will then go to predetermined floors, called collection floors, where the occupants have been trained to gather. Collection floors may be established every five floors.

During any of the three evacuation modes, the director may call for the use of all elevators and stairs, depending on the type of incident. Alternatively, the director might opt to evacuate by stairs only or might further restrict the evacuation only to stairs leading directly onto a public street. When using just stairs for an evacuation, the number of stairs, the limited capacity, and stair flows are just a few considerations that must be analyzed.

The director must also consider the various problems that might impede the flow of occupants down the stairs. For example, an injured person might need to move ahead of the flow, which could cause a backup, or first responders ascending the stairs may meet occupants descending. Disabled persons may need assistance taking the stairs.

Routes. The director must determine which routes occupants will use in each of the evacuation modes. Issues to be considered include lighting, doors, and turnstiles at entry/exit points.

Within each stairwell, the emergency lighting system, whether battery powered or connected to the building emergency generator, should light the egress paths. Unfortunately, exit lighting is often unavailable for a variety of reasons. For example, in some cases, the generator fails and battery packs are dry from lack of maintenance. If photo-luminescent exit path markings have been installed in stairwells and along exit pathways, that will drastically enhance any emergency evacuation.

The director must be sure that stairwell doors won’t lock people in as they move among floors and that evacuation routes do not lead occupants through high-security, waist-high turnstiles. These can hinder a rapid evacuation from a stairwell that leads directly into the lobby.

While turnstiles do turn freely in the direction of traffic flow, even when primary power is lost, certain types of turnstiles can be problematic. Single bar or plastic shield types that retract into the turnstile housing will provide for a faster egress than fixed tripod bars that are a permanent fixture across the opening. Also, when serving an occupant load greater than 300, a side-hinged swing door needs to be installed next to the fixed turnstiles. This door should open during emergencies.

Special needs. The director must work with the human resources department to determine which occupants have special needs and what assistance they need during an emergency evacuation. A secured list of where special-needs occupants work in the building should be part of the EAP.

Special-needs occupants and the personnel assigned to help them during an evacuation should have access to an area of assistance near a designated freight elevator. (The area of assistance should be predetermined and coordinated with local first responders.) If an elevator cannot be safely deployed, those occupants should have a secondary means of evacuating.

For example, a special chair that can be used to facilitate an emergency evacuation via the stairs can be stored near the stairwell on floors with special-needs occupants. The director should periodically review the list of special-needs occupants and revise the list to remove the names of employees who may have left or who may have been suffering from temporary conditions that have been resolved, such as a broken leg or a pregnancy.

It should be noted that though most people consider elevators off-limits during an emergency, they can be helpful in some circumstances. The use of elevators during emergencies other than fires can help occupants evacuate the building quickly when the director deems them safe to use. Elevators can be especially helpful in evacuating those with special needs.


In New York City, fire-safety directors are being put through an eight-hour course to help them serve as EAPs. After completing the course, each trainee must pass a written test as well as an on-site skill practicum given by the fire department.

Personnel serving on building floor teams who have been trained to help in fire evacuations are being retrained for other types of evacuations where they may be required to assist. EAP training is also being provided to other building staff such as security, electrical, HVAC, plumbing, and property management. All of these represent essential personnel who can help alleviate building emergencies.

Drills. The director should conduct EAP drills on a regular basis. Like a fire drill, an EAP drill should be held during normal business hours for all occupants. Conducted separately from the fire drill, EAP drills can focus on various issues independently or test them all at once.

Types of EAP drills can include instructions for all occupants, stairway familiarization, internal relocation areas, and remain-in-place and table-top exercises for building staff to test their skills on handling a potential threat to the building or immediate surrounding area. When conducting an EAP drill, the director must notify the local police, fire, and transportation departments as well as safety representatives from neighboring buildings.

Lessons Learned

Building EAPs have faced several real-life tests since being implemented. A mysterious natural gas-like odor hit New York City on the morning of January 8, 2007. Several mid-town office buildings were evacuated. However, some buildings that had adopted an EAP shut their outside air in-take vents and coordinated with the HVAC engineer as a precautionary measure after the odor was smelled inside.

In the buildings that did not evacuate, an emergency announcement was made informing the occupants that the odor was outside of the building and that they were monitoring the City Office of Emergency Management for further information as the incident progressed.

City officials soon told building managers from those buildings that had evacuated that people could return to work. There was no indication from the citywide air monitoring system that the air was unsafe or that there had been a terrorism event. Those buildings that had an EAP plan in place lost little time and productivity during the incident and their employees were spared the stress of an evacuation.

Later that year, a massive underground utility steam pipe explosion occurred near Grand Central Terminal. The blast sent plumes of high-pressure steam roaring into the sky. The violent explosion killed one person and injured more than 30. The force of the explosion left a 25-foot crater in the street.

The explosion hit at the height of the evening rush hour, creating chaos throughout Midtown Manhattan. The area was covered with ash, soot, and mud. The eruption broke windows, rattled many buildings in the immediate area, and spewed steam, dirt, and debris hundreds of feet into the air. Buildings managed by those who had an effective EAP in place activated their plans. They told occupants to remain inside (some chose to do an in-building relocation) until the authority having jurisdiction declared the area safe.

Lessons have also been learned from drills held by companies throughout the city. As a result, several trends are emerging. All parts of a building are being used during evacuations. For example, once considered just a funnel for incoming and outgoing goods, the loading dock area may provide a useful egress path to evacuate from a potential threat on the opposite side of the building.

Planning is critical in business generally. It is even more important in an emergency. By taking the time to develop guidance on emergency action plans, New York City has helped its businesses prepare for the worst.

Jack J. Murphy is principal of JJM & Associates, LLC, a safety preparedness group. He is a retired fire marshal and former deputy chief of the Leonia (New Jersey) Fire Department. He has served as the fire-safety director at New York Hospital/Cornell Medical Center and was the vice president of Global Fire Safety at Citigroup for their worldwide facilities. Murphy is the vice chairman of the Fire Safety Directors Association in New York City, a member of the NFPA High-Rise Building Safety Advisory Committee, and an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/Fire Science Institute for High-Rise Buildings.