How to Respond to a Fire in an Operating Business

photograph of a burning fire
Photo by moein moradi on

If you take all the proper precautions, and you’re a little lucky, you should never have to worry about a fire breaking out in your business. But not all fires are preventable, and not all fire prevention systems are foolproof, so it pays to know how to respond should a fire occur at your place of business. 

Whether you’re working in a small office or you’re managing a large storefront, it’s imperative to understand how to address a fire appropriately.

The Importance of Being Proactive

Your first line of defense is a series of proactive strategies that reduce the possibilities for a fire occurring – and equip you with the assets you need to manage a fire in progress.

These include:

Hazard reduction. Reduce the influence of fire hazards in your business. This could mean enforcing new rules or adding new safety policies around ovens, candles, and electrical wiring.

Fire suppression. Invest in a fire suppression system that deploys fire suppressants automatically when smoke or fire are detected. You can also invest in portable fire protection systems so you can respond to a fire in progress.

Evacuation. If you had to evacuate the building, how would you do it? Where are your main exit areas and what are the paths to get there?

Training. Your employees should be formally trained on how to respond to an emergency, including how to handle customers and how to evacuate the building.

Documentation and signage. Officially document your emergency response plans, and use posted signage to direct people to emergency exits.

Immediate Steps to Take

When you first notice the fire, you’ll need to do the following:

Remain calm and assertive. This is an emergency situation, and a particularly dangerous one, but this is no time to panic. If you want to reduce harm and make clear decisions, you’ll need to remain calm and assertive throughout the process. Step into a leadership role and begin directing people; tell them where to go and what to do. And as you’re interacting with people, keep a calm, composed tone; it will reduce the urge to panic.

Call for help. Call 911 (or your local emergency number) immediately. Even if it looks like the fire is small or manageable, there’s no harm in calling the fire department.

Pay attention to your surroundings. Look at your surroundings and try to gather information, assuming it’s safe to do so. Where did this fire originate? What are the combustible materials responsible for this fire? This information can be helpful to firefighters and investigators alike.

Evacuate people. Get people out of the building as quickly as possible (without causing a stampede). If you can, and if you have time, try to talk to people individually or in small groups. In larger buildings, or if the situation has progressed, a better strategy may be pulling the fire alarm or using a loudspeaker to reach everyone at once.

Take the stairs. Elevators are not a safe method of transportation during a fire. Instead, take the stairs, and instruct others to do the same.

Close doors. As you travel through the building, close any doors you can. Doors make it harder for fire to spread, and can buy you precious time as you make your way out of the building.

Find a safe room (if necessary). If you have a FEMA-approved safe room, and you can’t evacuate the building, take advantage of it. Otherwise, if you can’t leave the building, find a room that can keep you safe temporarily until help arrives. Keep the doors closed and use wet clothes and other materials to prevent smoke from entering through the cracks. Put something attention-grabbing in the window to signal that you need help.

Subsequent Steps to Take

After all these steps are taken care of, you can take the following steps:

Meet up. Outside, try to meet up with everyone you can. This can help you determine who’s accounted for and who may still be inside. You can also keep everyone a safe distance away from the burning building.

Provide information. When firefighters arrive, you’ll need to provide as much information as possible, including the source of the fire, people still inside, and other details.

Document the incident. You may also want to take the time to document the incident in as much detail as possible, especially if you plan on filing an insurance claim.

Hopefully, you’ll never have to follow these steps. But if your fire prevention strategies fail, and the worst situation begins to unfold, you’ll be prepared. Use fire drills to practice these steps and keep your employees on their toes – and be sure to inspect and update your fire protection systems regularly. 

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