In Case of Fire – Close the Door and Get Out!

Author: Gerd Grüner

Mar 02, 2022 Safety at work

Fires occur every day all around the world. Big cities are particularly risky. But how great is the risk of office fires? And what should you do in the event of a fire? DEKRA expert Lars Inderthal is on hand to answer questions.

Management and employees often approach fire safety in companies with a high degree of nonchalance. Escape routes and alarm plans? Sure, they exist. Fire doors? They’re more of a nuisance and held open with a wedge. The coffee machine with the patched-up power cord in the office kitchen? Always works perfectly. Risk of fire in the office? Close to zero. Such statements may sound casual at first – but they completely ignore the reality of life. On November 14, 1985, the Gelsenkirchen Administrative Court issued a remarkable ruling, which said: “The fact that no fires break out in many buildings for decades does not prove that there is no danger, but represents a stroke of luck for those affected, the end of which must be expected at any time” (case number 5 K 1012/85). The bitter reality: Fires occur every day all around the world and often with serious consequences for life and limb. In its latest report for 2019, the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services (CTIF), based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, evaluated the international statistics on the fire situation in around 30 countries. According to the report, around three million fire-related incidents occurred that year, in which more than 19,000 people lost their lives.
Big cities are a particular hot spot for fire safety
According to the report, big cities are a particularly risky place. Around 39 percent of fires there occur in buildings (28.4 percent residential, 10.5 percent other buildings). The data available in Germany points in a similar direction. If we take a closer look at the Federal Statistical Office’s cause-of-death statistics, about 420 people died in 2020 in connection with smoke, fire, and flames in buildings or structures. Even if the data cannot always be assigned in detail to the locations and causes of fires – the risk of personal injury always exists in the event of a workplace fire. A technical report on the effectiveness of fire safety measures, presented in February 2020 by the Association for the Promotion of German Fire Safety (vfdb), estimates that, when it comes to buildings in use, around 50 percent of fire alarms are attributed to residential, commercial, and administrative buildings. Another trend is that 16 percent of fires occur in single-story buildings, 68 percent in multi-story buildings, and nine percent of fires occur in high-rise buildings more than 22 meters in height.
Electricity is a top cause of fires in and around buildings
Indeed, office fires can start out of the blue. However, there’s no force majeure involved in most cases. In its 2020 fire cause statistics, the Kiel Institute for Loss Prevention and Loss Research conducted around 2,000 fire cause investigations. These primarily examined fires that caused significant damage in and to buildings. Topping the negative list of the most common fire causes were electricity (31 percent), human error (20 percent), arson (12 percent), and overheating (eight percent). In 19 percent of cases, the causes could not be determined. Among experts, the order of this list hardly comes as a surprise – this distribution of fire causes has been relatively stable in most relevant statistics over the past 18 years. But if the danger has been identified, why hasn’t it been averted by now? “If office fire safety isn’t taken seriously, there’s often a lack of awareness of the danger, though sometimes it just comes down to thoughtlessness,” explains Lars Inderthal, Specialist Area Manager for Fire Safety at DEKRA. The expert, himself a member of a volunteer fire department in central Hesse and author of numerous technical papers and books on fire safety, knows the relevant scenarios in offices. According to him, a short circuit or overheating is always possible if, for example, people are using a defective kettle in the office kitchen. The popular multiple plugs are also a source of danger, especially when several plugs are plugged into each other and the connected devices lead to overloading and overheating of a plug. Even charging smartphone batteries is not without risk – if someone borrows a charging cable from a colleague at work, it may overheat due to lack of compatibility and can subsequently lead to a fire. Things might get really dicey if an employee leaves plastic dishes on the stove top in the office kitchen and they ignite unnoticed when the stove is switched on.
When it comes to office fire safety, the primary responsibility lies with the employer
“A very good fire safety measure would of course be for a company to ensure that a fire doesn’t occur in the working environment in the first place, or that precautions are at least taken so that a fire can be extinguished quickly if worse comes to worst,” says DEKRA expert Inderthal. In any case, the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the Workplace Ordinance, and accident prevention regulations place the onus on the employer with regard to preventive fire safety, first aid, firefighting, and evacuation of employees. The employer must ensure that all employees in the office know how to behave correctly in the event of a fire – so that they themselves, their colleagues, and other people in the building do not come to harm. This requires, for example, that people know the fire safety regulations as well as the escape and rescue plans. Employees must know the locations of fire extinguishers and be able to operate the equipment. Fire safety assistants play an important role in company fire safety. By law, employers must train at least five percent of the company’s employees for this task. In addition to expert instruction, the curriculum includes practical exercises in the use of fire extinguishing equipment and how to behave in the event of a fire.
It is best to unplug technical devices after office hours
“Preventive fire safety is also about employees and persons responsible developing an awareness of hazards and their effects,” Lars Inderthal knows. On a practical level, simple and clear rules could help here. It would be conceivable, for example, for employees to unplug electrical appliances that are no longer needed at the workplace and in the kitchen after office hours. To be on the safe side, a ceramic plate could be placed under the kettle and coffee maker to prevent a fire from starting and spreading if the appliances malfunction. Computer fans at the workplace also deserve attention. Over time, dust can collect and interfere with heat dissipation. In the worst case scenario, the dust ignites and sets the equipment on fire. The principle of cleanliness and orderliness applies to escape and rescue routes in office buildings. In the event of a fire, they serve to evacuate the people in the office, but also allow the fire department access to the building for external rescue and firefighting. It is therefore logical that discarded furniture or office and packaging materials have no place in corridors and stairwells. And what about the wedge that holds open the fire door? This supposed trick is, of course, completely counterproductive. After all, fire doors are supposed to ensure that fire and smoke do not spread to other parts of the building in the event of a fire, thus preventing the people present from rescuing themselves. This is only possible if the door is actually closed in an emergency.
Five questions for DEKRA expert Lars Inderthal
What’s the difference between an outdoor fire and an indoor fire?
Inderthal: A main factor in a fire are the resulting fire gases. Outdoors, they simply escape upwards. This doesn’t work inside a building, where the gases disperse with the smoke immediately after a fire starts. This happens silently and very quickly. Even after a very short time, the smoke can lead to considerable visual obstructions and thus make self-rescue more difficult.
What danger does the smoke itself pose?
Inderthal: The greatest danger in a fire doesn’t come from the fire, but from the released smoke gas. In a building, there’s less oxygen available to a fire than outdoors. This leads to incomplete combustion, which produces toxic carbon monoxide (CO), for example, which spreads with the smoke and causes unconsciousness after just a few breaths. 95 percent of fire victims don’t die from fire but from smoke.
What’s the most important rule when there’s a fire in an office building?
Inderthal: Act quickly, deliberately, and decisively. If there’s a fire in an office, employees have a maximum of two minutes before the spreading smoke becomes life-threatening. If the fire can’t be extinguished immediately, they have to get out of the room quickly and close the door so that the smoke doesn’t spread to escape routes such as the hallway or stairwell. This buys time to warn the other employees in the building and get them to safety. Once everyone has left the room, never open the door again – even to extinguish a fire. This should be left to the fire department, which is much better equipped to handle it.
What mistake should employees never make in the event of a fire?
Inderthal: A smoke-filled stairwell is a death trap. It’s therefore vital never to try to escape through the stairwell if smoke has already formed in it. It would be a fatal mistake to think that you can escape from the first or second floor through the smoky stairwell to the first floor while holding your breath. Just a few breaths are enough to incapacitate a person.
And if the escape route is already blocked?
Inderthal: In this case, the room in which the employees are located should be sealed as well as possible against smoke penetration. Afterwards, everyone should gather at a window or on a balcony and catch the rescue forces’ attention when they arrive. The fire department is usually on scene within ten minutes.
Checklist: How to behave in case of fire at the workplace
There is no golden rule for what to do in the event of a fire. In most cases, office workers must respond to the situation at hand. The following basic rules have proven to be effective:
  • Keep calm, don’t panic!
  • Rescue takes precedence over fighting the fire.
  • Only attempt to put out the fire with a fire extinguisher during the initial phase of the fire if it’s possible to do so without endangering yourself.
  • Leave the danger area via marked escape and rescue routes.
  • Close doors behind you – do not lock them.
  • Do not use elevators.
  • When rescuing people from an immediate danger zone (fire room or smoky area), pay attention to self-protection.
  • Begin evacuation as early as possible.
  • Sound the fire alarm or report the fire by calling 112.
  • Never run back into a burning or smoky building.
  • Check that all personnel are present.
  • Brief the fire department (Where is the fire? Where are people still in the building?).