people escaping fire in building

I recently attended a 20-minute presentation on Fire Safety (in the midst of a day-long event).

In that short presentation, the professional said something that left me disturbed.

He said, “High-rises (30-meters + / approx. 10-storey and above) are supposed to have a refuge area every 7 floors.”

(He then went on to describe a fire accident where a person lost his life though he could have saved himself if only he knew about the refuge area, which was just a floor above!)

Now, in my 15+ years of corporate working (including in high-rise offices) – and participating in tens of fire-drills – I had never known of this refuge area. Or maybe it wasn’t mandatory then.

Either way, it made me want to write an all-inclusive 1-page Things To Do in case of fire.

The following is one such attempt.

Do take 10 minutes to go through it – especially points 4,6,7,8 and 10; the sheer logicality of the points will ensure it remains with you for a long time. (Most of them are from Thane Fire Brigade website.)

1. Don’t panic.

2. Shout and inform others. If fire alarm is within reach – break the glass and press it.

3. Use stairs to exit the building, not the lift.

4. In case you are stuck in lift, never try to escape without help from an expert.

Do not try to force the inner lift doors open. Do not be tempted to climb out of hatch in the lift’s ceiling. Use the alarm button or the telephone inside the lift to call for help. If there is no alarm system, bang on the door and shout for help. Stay calm and wait – you may get hungry, thirsty and worried, but you will survive.

5. Leave the building and assemble at a safe distance. This will ensure that space around the building is free for Fire-tenders to approach.

6. If you are unable to exit the building, seek out the refuge area and take shelter there.

7. If you have to go through smoke, keep low by crawling on your hands and knees.

In a fire, smoke will naturally rise, leaving some fresh air about 30cm to 60cm off the floor. Crawling keeps your head in this safety zone, away from the smokes toxic content. Use a wet cloth to cover your mouth and nose. If nothing else is available, use your spit (and in extreme circumstance your urine) to wet the cloth.

8. If you are trapped and unable to exit or access the refuge area – fire or heavy smoke all around – enter a safe room, preferably one that overlooks a road. Shut the door behind you. Cover the gap at the bottom of the door with a blanket or rug to prevent smoke from entering the room. Shout for help from the window or other openings to alert passers-by. Then wait for rescue to arrive.

9. If you have a phone, call Fire Brigade 101 (Police is 100, and Ambulance is 102) – and inform the operator of your location (floor / room number / position), what is on fire and how many people are trapped. Do not attempt to jump out of the building. Help will be on the way very soon.

10. In the event that your clothes catch fire, remember to Stop, Drop and Roll. Cover your face with your hands. Roll over and over to put out the flames. Rolling smothers the flames by removing the oxygen. Covering your face with your hands will prevent the flames from burning your face, and help keep fumes and smoke from reaching your lungs and eyes.

11. Use of Fire Extinguisher – This 18-minute You Tube video is a good demonstration on the subject. (Note: In case the fire is big, leave the job to the Fire Brigade.)

Most of the above is collated from Thane Fire Brigade website, with some I recall from the drills I participated in.

At an employee level, Fire Drills have become synonymous with ‘leave the building’. Need arises to inform what we need to do when stuck in fire. The above to-do’s are a step in that direction.

While the cause of fire accidents is majorly one (45% of fires are electrical fires), lives so lost can be saved.

Some fire accidents, and what we can learn from them:

1) 9/11 – World Trade Centre

In the midst of all round destruction, one firm stood out – Morgan Stanley.

Rigorous implementation of lessons learnt from past fire-drills helped Morgan Stanley to evacuate – in under an hour – 2700 employees from 44th floor and above – down the stairs of the World Trade Centre.

2) Tarangan Complex, Mumbai – 6 Oct 2009

6 Fire Brigade personnel died of suffocation in the lift. They ignored their own manual – and used the lift, inside a building on fire! In the interim, someone switched off the power supply.

3) Carlton Towers, Bangalore – 23 Feb 2010

9 died (3 from jumping the building). As per the Chief Fire Officer, “More than the fire it was the smoke that caused panic.”

4) Stephen Court, Kolkata – 24 March 2010

As per the Fire Service Chief, “The door to the top roof was locked. They (18 who died) could have been alive if they had reached the roof.”


Anil Karamchandani is a Mumbai-based former manager.

He is author of ‘21 Office Situations & How to Deal with Them’ available on Amazon.in.