Stay-put policy causes deep division and disputes in professional fire safety circles

One of the core principles at the heart of firefighting policy for dealing with fire in high-rise residential and more complex buildings has come under the spotlight because of concerns over what is best for the safety of residents. What is described as stay-put has been a core principle for many years but now it is being questioned. With that, comes questions over other fire safety measures.
It is common sense and instinctive to many that when aware of fire, simply get out. The psychological reaction to stress and threat is commonly described as either fight or flight. In fire, which can develop and move quickly, the immediate response is flight, get to a place of safety and stay out. 

That’s an understandable reaction. Yet common advice from the Fire Service for those in high-rise blocks and similar high occupancy complex buildings where there is no immediate fire safety supervision, is for occupants to stay where they are if they are aware of fire but not immediately affected by flames, smoke or heat. It’s counter intuitive. But that is the long-standing advice.

The Stay-Put Policy

If there is fire inside your flat then alert everybody in the flat, leave (immediately) and close all doors. Follow a pre-determined escape plan. If there is a lot of smoke in the flat and escape ways, then crawl along the floor where air should be clearer and temperature less hot. Always use the stairs, not a lift. Call 999 when in a safe place. If there is fire elsewhere in the building then you are usually safer to stay in your flat, unless the heat and smoke is affecting you. If you “stay put” then you should still immediately call 999 for advice, and to ensure that fire and rescue and other emergency crews have been notified. Advice can and does change depending on circumstances.
 Advice from The National Fire Chiefs’ Council (NFCC).

From the point of view of the fire and rescue services, there are some practical considerations. 

The underlying, implicit assumption is that the fire safety measures in the building – predominantly the compartmentation structure of the building perhaps combined with suppression systems – will keep the fire small and manageable and in the place where it breaks out. It is also assumed that the detection and alarm systems will work to give the earliest possible alert for fast response. 

Although internal compartmentation barriers may be in place horizontally and vertically, what can be forgotten however, is that the external wall with windows is not usually a compartment wall. Fire can break out. Yet robust fire-resistant integrity glazing can be used to prevent glass failure and limit the chances of flame spread outside, up and along the façade. Ceramic glass can easily resist thermal stress; and has been tested to endurance times of more than 4 hours, even with hose stream impact.

The fire service needs to get to the fire as quickly as possible to deal with it as easily as possible. They don’t want panic in the building with everybody trying to leave, all at the same time.

“Stay put” also means staying aware and keeping in touch with the emergency telephone contacts. It may mean perhaps making emergency decisions to leave when conditions become uncomfortable, especially when firefighters are able to assist. Fire of course is dynamic and circumstances can change on the ground very quickly. Conditions for safe escape may very quickly change as well.


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