Does Your Fire Escape Plan Work?
Early hours of 29th December saw a horrific fire at a rooftop restaurant in Mumbai. I could hear a continuous stream of distant sirens just before going to sleep. I couldn’t have imagined the extent of death and destruction. The restaurant is a breezy rooftop one, with plenty of bamboo and plastic on the premises. And the staff, towards making the experience more memorable, had a fireworks show on. A possibly illegal structure. A common, narrow exit for 3 restaurants. The result, 15 dead, including a girl who was there to celebrate her birthday. A very tragic, and avoidable mistake.
Many of those who died, were huddled up in the bathroom, after having mistaken it for the exit.
While the media was quick to blame the owners and management, it seemed like the municipal corporation managed to slip out of the spotlight. They are responsible for enforcing safe design, entry/exit criteria, and even ensuring collective safety of an area, as they have a birds eye view of it. However, I have seen numerous restaurants and bars over the years, springing up right next to each other in this seemingly haphazard layout. And as per different sources, many of the establishments are illegal.
A social media friend of mine had a great idea of having Google encourage users to share the Fire Exit plan of establishments and hotels, so that those planning to visit can get a sense of the exit strategy beforehand.
While it would certainly help, I think establishments need to rethink their Fire Exit Plans themselves. Over the years, at several places, I have seen Fire Escape Plans stuck upside down at premises.
While I was pretty savvy with survey maps in school, an earlier role of mine involved numerous meetings in sprawling industrial areas, and I’d use their map to navigate from company to company located there. And whenever I had colleagues with me, I saw how they struggled to understand and guide me while I drove around. And these were amazingly clear maps that I felt one could figure out, no matter from which direction they looked at it. If those were tough to understand, imagine expecting someone to try to understand a floor plan in the urgency of a burning building.
This is what an average Fire Escape or Floor Layout plan looks like.
However, maps need to be better designed to serve the purpose of guiding people both in normal times, and in emergencies.
Which means, the layouts need to be layered, using appropriate colours, to allow for prioritized access of important information. How this can be done, is by using a slightly lighter (possibly grey) colour for the more detailed schematics, and bright colours and simpler steps to direct people in an emergency.
For instance, let’s consider the following map.
This is the kind of floor/escape plan you see at many places. However, it can be extremely confusing to understand in the panic of an emergency. These plans are on walls to serve a purpose, emergency exit! Which means, users don’t need so much information. A map must offer the entire schematic in a slightly light colour. This way, in regular times, people can take a moment to stand close and figure their way out. Bright colours should highlight the shortest paths to be taken in emergencies. And this information should stand out in a glimpse. And maps should be customized for each section of every floor. That way, such important information should be rapidly accessible when the need arises.
For smaller establishments, a map near the entrance will give people an idea about available exits, as they walk in.
The objective should be for information to come out in stages, depending on the urgency. For those in a hurry, just the fire exit. For those working in their way around, a few more moments to understand the layout.
Restaurants in the area were quick to bounce back after this incident. Hopefully the tragedy will remind businesses to put people before profit.
On reading this post, Dr. Patell, a great buddy of mine, sent me some valid points that could really save lives, if factored in. Here they are: