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.