Many companies and even Federal agencies have identified volunteers on every floor of their buildings to act as “floor wardens” during a fire alarm. One agency has instructions on their website to their floor wardens about their duties during a fire alarm:
The floor warden team is responsible for checking where the fire activation is, checking with other floor wardens that the building is empty, and liaising with the Fire Department. A member of the team will also record the event and investigate if necessary.
This conduct is common for floor wardens. They are expected to perform a search for people, investigate the source of fire, urge people to evacuate that haven’t left their desks, and rescue those that are trapped.
What equipment do they have? A reflective vest, flashlight, and perhaps a whistle!
What training do they have? They are shown the location of the stairwells, told where outside they should send people, and are instructed to write down the names of people that refuse to evacuate.
In my opinion, the floor warden system is seriously flawed and extremely dangerous. There are so many issues with the system, it’s hard to know where to start.
First, it’s hard enough for the professional rescue squad that the fire department sends to perform search and rescue–and rescue squads have extensive training and equipment (such as air supply, tools, radios, helmets, fire resistent person protective equipment, and other specialized equipment). Floor wardens have none of this equipment or training.
Additionally, rescue squads function as a team of professionals and have an ability to relay information up the chain of command. A rescue squad can receive an order from the chief to abort a rescue and regroup in safety. The floor wardens usually operate alone (rarely in pairs) and are lucky to even have a radio.
The idea that floor wardens are supposed to investigate a fire is absolutely ludicrous. If a fire department announced that, in order to save money, when it receives a call for fire, the fire department would first dispatch a civilian with no fire training and no personal protective equipment to enter the burning building and investigate, the community would be rightfully outraged. Yet that same mission is given to floor wardens when the fire alarm sounds.
In addition to a lack of equipment and woefully inadequate training, the liability of the floor warden system is absolutely extraordinary. Let’s take a step back and analyze their roles: when the fire alarm sounds, the floor wardens are instructed by their bosses NOT TO EVACUATE. OSHA requires that employees operating in an environment with smoke and/or fire have proper personal protective equipment (PPE) such as respiratory protection, eye protection, helmets, and fire retardent clothing. Fire doubles in size about every 30 seconds–and unequipped floor wardens are sitting ducks. Operating on the fireground without proper PPE is not just dangerous, but really foolish and comes with incredible liability for a company that orders some employees to stay put during a fire.
Additionally, the International Fire Code is very clear:
23.11.401.9 International Fire Code Section – Evacuation required. In the event of activation of a fire, emergency alarm, or at the direction of the fire code official, occupants of the building or portion of the building in which the alarm is activated shall make a safe and orderly evacuation out of the building
Notice that the IFC doesn’t say “let your volunteers wander around the fire without protective equipment or extensive fire training on the lookout for folks who refuse to evacuate.”
It shouldn’t require that a floor warden perish in a fire before the emergency management field examines this practice and then prohibits it.
Unfortunately, it seems like floor wardens are supposed to be a stop-gap measure for poor emergency training among office workers. Why force everyone to undergo annual evacuation and emergency procedures training when the floor warden will just tell me what to do during an emergency? This is not the right perspective. Everyone ought to go through annual and refresher emergency training under the expectation that NO ONE will be available to remind them what to do during the emergency.
In many ways, the floor warden system establishes unreasonable expectations. For the sake of argument, let’s say that floor wardens were properly equipped and trained and worked in teams–what happens when they call in sick or go on vacation or go to lunch? Floor wardens themselves may have unrealistic–and dangerous–expectations of performing lifesaving rescues and braving the flames to help others. We ought to squash fantasies of tombstone heroism (heroic acts that end in a tombstone epitaph) and instead provide realistic and pragmatic duties (such as accountability at the evacuation rendezvous/rally point or triage outside the building). None of the pragmatic duties I mention entail people staying inside a building after the fire alarm sounds.
Some folks point out that floor wardens are useful for holding the door open to the stairwell during evacuations. The problem here is that in most buildings, during a fire alarm, the stairwells are positively pressurized to keep smoke from filling the stairwell like a chimney. If each floor warden were to hold open the doors on each floor throughout an evacuation, the positive pressurization would fail to be effective. Thus, it’s actually best if the wardens do not hold the doors open!
Others say that studies have shown that people respond better to people in authority during an evacuation–thus the need for floor wardens with vests. That’s true, but studies have also shown that “evacuees are more likely to follow the instructions of uniformed officials (e.g., police and firefighters) than subway workers [or other non-public safety personnel], due to their perceptions of the authority and confidence of the firefighters and police officers.” If firefighters are proven to be even more successful at getting folks to evacuate, then why waste the effort with ineffective floor wardens?
The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training program does a good job of explaining two key principles of emergency response: “Do the greatest good for the greatest number” and “Don’t bring another victim to the scene” (meaning yourself). Floor wardens should be repurposed to do the greatest good for the greatest number that evacuate outside. Too, floor wardens can avoid bringing another victim to the scene by evacuating with everyone else when the fire alarm sounds.
In the end, I hope that building management companies, businesses, and agencies and organizations of all types abandon the floor warden system before someone gets seriously injured or killed. The myths that serve as justification to maintain the program are easily disproven and there’s no use keeping the program as a tradition when it has the potential of terrible legal liability and the potential for injury/death.
Steven Polunsky (@StevenPolunsky) said:
Very thoughtfully written. I have not heard this argument before.
David Ortiz said:
Todd, you make some good observations…from an academic & logical viewpoint you have some solid arguements. From a practical real life opinion you are way too far in the weeds. The truth is…the benefits of having Floor Wardens far outweigh the “risk management” possibility of one Warden taking their duties way too seriously.
The idea of Floor Wardens acting as Rescuers during an active High Rise fire is new to me. I have never heard of a Warden being credited with individually saving a life. To their credit during 9-11, I am sure that their actions, as a collective made evacuation more efficient, thereby saving lives. Did any wardens die effecting rescues during those fires? I could not find one example of a Warden dying while doing what you described.
Firefighters or not, most of us have an instict that tells us what we are doing is unsafe or we are in over our heads. There are too many variables to give specific set of guidelines that will make their operations always safe. Just like a Firefighter does not always use the same tactics or have the same concerns. Every building has different types of contruction, ventilation systems, elevators, fire protection systems and alarms. That is why coordination and training prior to the fire is paramount.
Did you speak to any Building Engineers regarding your theory of stairwells? I doubt all the doors could be held open simultaneously during an evacuation…especially if smoke filled! Charged stairwells cause a vacuum on the doors that a typical elderly or smaller framed person may find challenging to pull open. Give it a try…you may be surprised.
People have to be trained…but can’t be expected to fulfill ALL their “warden duties”. If they can assist the majority of the people from their floor and get them to the right stairwell, I would be satisfied with their performance. There are thousands of occupants in a high rise buildings and the fire department can’t possibly come up and take them all down by the hand to safety.
Sorry Todd, there is a purpose for their exsistance…perhaps a review of different scenarios with their local fire company can keep an over zealous Warden from falling victim to their self image of “heroism”. For the most part I think they are a good thing.
Thanks for the comments David, I wanted to reply to several of your points.
In regards to whether any floor wardens died during 9/11, I would offer an excerpt from the book “Unthinkable” by Amanda Ripley, in which the author chronicles the actions of Rick Rescorla (the head of security for Morgan Stanley). He oversaw the evacuation with a bullhorn and then “he was last seen on the tenth floor, heading upward…Rescorla heard about a few people who had been left behind. In particular, a Morgan Stanley senior vice president had not left his office. The executive was last seen talking on the phone, even as everyone else evacuated.” (page 210).
You mention: “Firefighters or not, most of us have an instinct that tells us what we are doing is unsafe or we are in over our heads.” I agree. But I think that instinct can be silenced by a supervisor’s expectation that a floor warden operate in hazardous conditions–without proper training or equipment. If an employee thinks he may be perceived as a coward by his coworkers or face discipline or reprimand by not “toughing it out” or continuing with a floor warden-prescribed building search, he may continue to endure hazardous conditions at the expense of his health and welfare. We ought to recognize that normal employees, without proper training or equipment, should simply be expected to evacuate and then provide assistance once in an area that offers greater safety than a burning building.
Regarding the stairwells, positively pressurized stairwells are fairly common (they are required by National Fire Protection Association [NFPA] Fire Protection Code). Having doors held open for an extended period of time (rather than just the amount of time it takes for the occupants to egress–such as in the scenario where well-intentioned floor wardens make it a habit to hold the doors open for occupants) can lead to a decrease or defeat of the positive pressurization system–which could allow smoke into the stairwell. In a worst case scenario, the stairwells could act as chimneys allowing smoke to move directly up the stairwells. At one federal agency I worked with, they suffered a fire in their basement. When they looked at the alarm panel, the smoke detectors were activating in the basement but also on the top story of the building. The smoke had travelled up the elevator shafts and was causing alarms to sound at the topmost parts of the building.
In the end, the fire code has been designed based on universally accepted practices and safety engineering. The code forces buildings to include life safety systems like positive pressurization, smoke dampers in the ventilation system, lighted evacuation paths, and annual fire drills. That should suffice until trained firefighters arrive. By allowing floor wardens to circumvent evacuation rules by trying to conduct their own search and rescue efforts–or even just simply holding the doors open to the stairwells, we are not allowing the system to work as intended and run the possibility of leading more individuals to risk injury or death for very little in return.
Terry Street said:
Todd, you make an excellent point in your blog. Too much responsibility is often placed on floor wardens during an emergency. There is absolutely no reason to assign a floor warden to check the location of a fire alarm activation for example. Sending a warden to investigate creates an unnecessary hazard to the warden. If the fire alarm is activated it is the fire department’s job to investigate.
I firmly believe that floor wardens have a role to play during emergencies, but their role needs to be clearly defined and emergency training should be provided for all employees.
I believe that some kind of balance should be struck between the building’s occupants and the professional responders. This would entail obtaining input from all partners involved in the emergency, and preferably before it is necessary. Professional rescue personnel can not be expected to memorize the floor plans of every building in their charge and so, they will depend on the occupants to lead them to areas and/or persons in need of their attention. Designating a responsible individual to quickly note the hazards on one floor, before evacuating to safety, does not seem unreasonable to me
Robert Dunne said:
Todd you make some good points with respect to a localized emergency impacting one building. You asked however that “If firefighters are proven to be even more successful at getting folks to evacuate, then why waste the effort with ineffective floor wardens?
When the whole town is impacted however we are trained that first responders will be overwhelmed, and will have to prioritize their response based on available resources, and may not be able to get to everyone right away. The mantra has been that people may need to find a way to be self sufficient for up to 72 hours, and that in essence at home, you are your family’s first responder.
Many of the concepts of the Floor Warden program are not inconsisstent with the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) approach that has been espoused and federally funded for many years now (although that’s going away next year too). The premise for CERT was that since you are likely to respond for your family and your neighbors (or co-workers) in a disaster first anyway, it would be more effective and effiicent for you to be well trained and at least taught to be well prepared and equipped as well.
The HUGE difference between a Floor Warden program and CERT however is that it is employer and/or building owner or manager sponsored. As a consequence you are given an assgined role as a volunteer with an implied and inherent superior/subordinate relationship. As a consequence there is a considerable employer liability that may be potentially addressed both within the realm of a Workers Compensation and Employers Liability statute for injuries to the individuial Floor Warden. The employer is also placing themselves in a position of significant vicarious liability for accidental injury to others because while an employee is serving in this capacity, they are doing so an agent of the emloyer.
This year DHS-FEMA established an award in honor of Rick Rescorla.
Following the 1993 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Rescorla drilled his Morgan Stanley employees in disaster preparedness and response. Rescorla’s actions and his commitment to preparedness ensured that the 2,700 Morgan Stanley employees who worked in the South Tower knew how to evacuate and where to go on 9/11.
On September 11, 2001, Rescorla was Vice President of Security for Morgan Stanley at their Headquarters in the World Trade Center. He personally led a massive evacuation of Morgan Stanley’s 2,700 employees, and all but six of Morgan Stanley’s workers in the South Tower survived. Rick Rescorla was one of those killed and was last seen walking back up the stairs to rescue more people.
During the commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano honored the memory of Richard “Rick” Rescorla by presenting the DHS Distinguished Public Service Medal to Mr. Rescorla’s widow at a ceremony in New York City.
The Rick Rescorla National Award for Resilience is the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) first national resilience award for superior leadership and innovation by a non-governmental individual or organization who exemplifies the qualities and achievements of Rick Rescorla, emphasizing leadership in effective preparation, response, and recovery in the face of disasters.
I don’t disagree with your concerns about the potential accidental injury and death in an emergency, and many; although not all of the risks can be mitgated through preparedness measures of planning, training and exercising. Rather than elminating these programs altogether, employers may be better suited to invest in them by recruiting the right people to serve, training and equipping them extensively, and rewarding them for assuming the role in a meaningful way.