Who wants to be a Fire Warden?

Jim RickardsArticle

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How do you get people interested in fire safety? If the ‘dull’ stigma of H&S doesn’t put people off, the fear of responsibility usually will. Martin Reed, MD of TagEvac Emergency Evacuation Systems, offers some practical solutions.

While demonstrating TagEvac up and down the country I get to meet many H&S, Risk and Facilities Managers. Talking through the challenges they face every day offers great insights for our company and helps us develop our products and services. And the single most common question we hear time and again is this:

‘How do we get people to become and stay Fire Wardens?’

It’s a big challenge for companies of all sizes, but especially for multi-level and multi-site organisations. However, it’s one that can largely be overcome by offering clear, basic, factual information to help demystify the role. When designing new products at TagEvac we always look for the most effective approach, delivered as simply as possible. Following this rule, the first principle should be to make sure the role created is easy to understand and simple to carry out. Too often, there can be a level of miscommunication, misunderstanding and fear that the role is something of a liability. Removing fear of the unknown immediately helps with the engagement process.

Leave it to the managers – again?

Assuming you don’t offer any financial benefit for the role, and that you value your staff and the important part they can play in maintaining a healthy and happy workplace, the position of Fire Warden nearly always ends up as the responsibility of Department Managers, Team Leaders and Production Supervisors or others who hold key positions in your business. Although you know they’ll probably carry out their duties responsibly, they could see it as just another ‘burden’ on top of a host of other more important tasks they had to finish yesterday. At the same time, you’ll need to appoint deputy Fire Wardens to ensure cover for holiday or sickness. However, in larger organisations staff move freely between departments and can end up far from their original location – which could cause big ‘who’s responsible for what’ problems during a real emergency. In this type of environment, how do you create a system that allows flexibility of movement of staff and a Fire Warden policy that works?

Build a culture of ownership

One answer is to offer a programme of structured Fire Safety courses for Fire Wardens run on a regular basis. It’s an effective way to provide the necessary basic skills and build a sense of ownership of the role. A typical course would cover fire legislation, common causes of fire and its prevention, fire behaviour (and the people affected by it), limitations and use of fire-fighting equipment, in-built passive and active safety, and safe emergency evacuation procedures  – and how all these topics relate to the role of the Fire Warden. It’s particularly important that you tailor the training to the nature of your business so it makes sense and is, above all else, relevant.

Understanding = engagement

For all of us, understanding is enhanced when we can relate to and engage with the subject. Fire safety legislation provides a structure for proven and ‘easy to recognise and use’ fire safety products, e.g. fire extinguishers and alarm systems. These products are relatively simple to comprehend and engage with due to their familiarity. Using the same approach, you should aim to provide the same level of connection for the Fire Warden’s role in evacuation.

It’s something we’ve spent years trying to get right at TagEvac. We made our ‘sweep’ evacuation system simple and intuitive, providing instant clarity in a crisis while encouraging better engagement with the duties associated with the Fire Warden role, because the whole evacuation process is ordered and solid. Training can also be more structured by referring to instructions in a visual-based system.

A good evacuation system should reduce checking time and provide quick, reliable information quickly at your control point. If you can avoid lengthy headcounts and minimise work disruption, all the better. And what your Fire Warden’s really wants is to lose that feeling of burden and the fear of messing up. Checking a floor in the event of a fire is a big responsibility, but won’t be something to make your palms sweat if you have absolute faith in system you’re using. Adopt a system that ticks all those boxes and you’re much more likely to be able to encourage staff from all levels of your organisation.

So perhaps the answer is to create a simple structured role that can also be as fluid as the organisation’s demands on it. If your Fire Wardenmoves frequently between two areas, it would be both good practice and use of resources to have them function at both. This increases potential cover and lessens the likelihood of zones not being checked during an evacuation. Having a better understanding of the role at both locations makes the Fire Warden task more straightforward as it is clearly defined.

Whatever system you use and rely on to keep your company and all its staff safe, make sure it’s 100% clear and simple to follow. Offer jargon-free, practicaltraining, a sense of ownership and remove the fear of chaos caused by not really knowing what you’re meant to be doing. Follow these steps and you may find yourself facing an unexpectedly difficult task: who to choose from you list of volunteers.

Jim RickardsWho wants to be a Fire Warden?