Jokes about charred bones: not exactly reassuring!
October 17, 2013 7:02 AM   Subscribe

How should I deal with a co-worker who won't evacuate when a fire alarm sounds? I am particularly concerned because his mobility is limited. Added complication: he is my boss.

I work in a large organisation, but in a small section where quite often the only staff present are my boss and myself. My boss has a serious mobility impairment - he walks, extremely slowly, with the aid of two forearm crutches. I gather that walking is very effortful and quite uncomfortable (painful?) for him.

Recently, the fire alarm sounded. As in most organisations, when the alarm sounds, it is usually a false alarm, and so we get a false alarm maybe a couple of times a year, but when the alarm started on this occasion we had no way of knowing whether there was actually a fire or not. I popped my head in to my boss' office and he told me he thought it was probably a false alarm, and I should evacuate but he would stay there. He cracked a joke that if the building burnt down and we found some bones they would be his. I didn't know what to say to this so I left and went to the muster point.

I can totally understand why he might feel that evacuation would not be worth the discomfort when it would probably be a false alarm. I have a suspicion that he feels self-conscious when walking, and he probably doesn't want to draw attention to the extent of his lack of mobility. But as I milled around with my other colleagues at the muster point, and as the fire alarm continued for several more minutes, I started to feel distinctly uneasy. What if there really was a fire? I would feel absolutely dreadful that he had stayed behind and I hadn't said anything. And while it's never a good idea to wait until there are flames or smoke before evacuating, for my boss who could not run or even walk at a normal pace to save his life, this would be catastrophic. It also occurred to me that if there was a fire, quite likely firefighters would have to risk their lives to go into the building and bring him out.

Of course, in this instance it was a false alarm, so I headed back to the office. When I got there my boss was in his chair at his desk, but he told me that he had decided to evacuate and headed out some time after me. But he was ensconced back at his desk by the time I got back, so I suspect he was barely out of the office by the time he turned back, and I presume he turned back when the alarm stopped sounding rather than waiting for an all-clear. On previous occasions he has grumbled a lot but he did evacuate.

So my questions are: Should I say something to my boss about his decision not to evacuate when there was a fire alarm? Is there anything I can do or say that might reduce the barriers to him evacuating next time?

Things I have considered:
  • Mentioning it to him next time I see him vs. waiting until next fire alarm and cajoling him into evacuating. (I'm not sure about this - bringing it up would be awkward but probably more likely to succeed than trying to convince him in the moment.)
  • Offering to bring along an office chair so that he will have something to sit on at the muster point and doesn't have to stand for a long period. (He is a pretty proud guy and he might not go for this, but I could offer.)
  • Offering to walk with him. (Not sure if this would seem patronising.)
  • Informing his manager. (No doubt this would be effective but if I'm going to do this it would basically have to be the day I resign. My boss doesn't have a good relationship with his manager and would never forgive me for doing this.)
  • Mind my own business and not question his decision to stay in a (possibly) burning building. (Have I completely lost perspective on this?)
I would be grateful especially for perspectives from mefites with limited mobility on how (and whether) they would like to be approached in such a situation - and also from other mefites who might have dealt with similar issues.

Throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (37 answers total)
Mind your own business. If there is a fire, tell the fire department that he may still be up there. The risk he forces on emergency responders is for his own conscience.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:08 AM on October 17, 2013 [31 favorites]

Yes, mind your own business. He's a grownup and he can make this decision for himself. It's nice that you're concerned about him, but that's as far as it goes.
posted by alms at 7:11 AM on October 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'd stay out of it. The only thing possible would be to go to the safety people of the building (if there's such a thing) and ask someone to come over and talk the people on your floor through security rules and practical issues.
posted by Namlit at 7:11 AM on October 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think the best you can do here is mind your own business, and if there is ever an actual fire, let the firemen know that your boss is still in the building. This won't be an unusual situation for the firemen: I had a manager who was in a wheelchair, and when we had fire drills, all he could do was go to the stairwell, park his chair in the corner, and hope that if it was actually a fire that a fireman would be able to get to him in time. It was always a sobering experience filing past him down the stairs.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 7:15 AM on October 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

I also agree with minding your own business. I am also a fire-alarm ignorer. I'll leave when I see flames. Especially in a building where the exits are easily accessible. Is that the situation where you work? If your boss knew it was a real fire, would he be able to get out?
posted by gjc at 7:17 AM on October 17, 2013

Fires double in size every six seconds. By remaining inside, he not only puts his life and those of his rescuers at risk, he also hampers any potential firefighting efforts by diverting resources away from the primary goal of putting out the fire. This is absolutely a case for speaking up. His mobility is limited, and this needs to be addressed now. The whole point of having a drill is to make the procedure more automatic, and a big part of that is addressing any wrinkles in the plan before shit hits the fan.
posted by disconnect at 7:19 AM on October 17, 2013 [17 favorites]

Read the profile of Rick Rescorla in Amanda Ripley's "The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why." Some people choose to run back into burning buildings. Some choose to ignore alarms. Focusing your efforts on the broader issue of fire safety training in your building (like installing glow-in-the-dark stickers on stairs, for example) might be more productive than arguing with an adult whose mind is made up.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:20 AM on October 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

A good office evacuation plan is supposed to have a block captain who takes up the task of dealing with people like your boss and making sure everyone is evacuated. Does your office have someone like this? If not, they really should. Mind your own business specifically regarding your boss, you'll never change his mind. However, if it helps you feel better, you could try and figure out who this person is or what the correct procedures should be in a real fire.
posted by itsonreserve at 7:22 AM on October 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Does your office have a refuge space that he could go to? Here in the UK these are normally clearly marked and the firefighters will go there immediately if alerted that there is a someone who will need assistance. As a firewarden (in a previous job, open access library, users of varying levels of mobility), I was generally advised to either point them out to users or to assist them there and then to flag that up with the head firewarden on my way out.

In general, we were instructed to never try to remonstrate with people (the firefighters tended to do that if the person was just generally being obstructive - i.e. lawyers in a previous job... - and the alarm was false.) so I think all you can do is your final option - he's an adult and can make that decision himself; you can alert someone in the case of an actual fire.
posted by halcyonday at 7:24 AM on October 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

You know, it might be awkward, but I would say something.

Pick an informal moment when you're drinking coffee or out to lunch, and bring it up - say something like, I was beginning to get worried - I don't think I could run the office without you - keep it light - he'll get the message.
posted by bq at 7:25 AM on October 17, 2013

...there is no record of a fatality in a fully sprinklered building outside the point of fire origin...
The NFPA states that it "has no record of a fire killing more than two people in a completely sprinklered building where a sprinkler system was properly operating, except in an explosion or flash fire or where industrial fire brigade members or employees were killed during fire suppression operations."

...there is no record of a fatality in a fully sprinklered building outside the point of fire origin...
The NFPA states that it "has no record of a fire killing more than two people in a completely sprinklered building where a sprinkler system was properly operating, except in an explosion or flash fire or where industrial fire brigade members or employees were killed during fire suppression operations."

That's a lot of caveats.

Does your business do organised/planned fire drills? If so, the H&S person at your work should be noting that your boss is not evacuating on their post-evac checklist/register. If they're consistently not evacuating I'd hope that the issue is passed on to their boss.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 7:25 AM on October 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Fires double in size every six seconds.

The usual adage is every 60 seconds, not 6 seconds, and even that is something of a worst-case guesstimate.

I'm in the let the adult make his own decisions camp here.
posted by ook at 7:28 AM on October 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Where I'm from you would be legally obligated to tell the fire marshal for your area. And they'd then try to make him leave. And if that doesn't work the fire service would actually make him leave, forceably if necessary. After a few goes of that he'll change his tune. If there is a problem with mobility stopping someone from leaving the building than there would also be a legal obligation to plan for this, which can only happen if the fire marshals know the problem exists.

So yeah. You have to tell someone, you can't just keep quiet. There should be a fire marshal or similar who is responsible for your area and they absolutely need to know he is still in there and refusing to leave. You should already know who that is but, if you don't, find out now so you're prepared ahead of time. Then, next time an alarm goes off, get yourself out safely to the muster area than immediately notify that person that someone is still inside and refusing to leave, they should take it from there. Hopefully there is a system in place for checking all areas are clear so they'll know he's there anyway (and I'd be really worried if there isn't), but your speaking up as soon as you're safe could save time and reduce risk for others.
posted by shelleycat at 7:30 AM on October 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Then, next time an alarm goes off, get yourself out safely to the muster area than immediately notify that person that someone is still inside and refusing to leave, they should take it from there.

How about saying "is having trouble leaving", which is true and more likely to provoke a better solution.
posted by 445supermag at 7:34 AM on October 17, 2013 [14 favorites]

A good office evacuation plan is supposed to have a block captain who takes up the task of dealing with people like your boss and making sure everyone is evacuated. Does your office have someone like this? If not, they really should.

In the high-rise I used to work in, firefighters would come and give us lectures on what to do if there was a fire. For disabled/limited mobility people (since we were on the 24th floor and of course, you can't use the elevator in a fire), I believe they said that they should wait in a safe place (in that building's case, in the stairwell I think?), and then someone should tell the firefighters exactly where they are.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:40 AM on October 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

Dealing with this is not your job, it's somebody else's job. Just do this: talk to HR and explain your concerns. Or talk to somebody who is in charge of safety at your building, if that's not HR. Impress on them that you are speaking confidentially and don't want your name mentioned. You may find out that he has already spoken with them and worked something out around all this. Or, it may be a surprise to them, and they will want speak with him about it. Either way, problem addressed. You probably won't know whether they take action or not, but that's not your concern. You've raised the issue in an appropriate venue and can stop worrying about it.
posted by beagle at 7:41 AM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, you've got to mind your own business on this one. I was on my building's emergency zone team briefly and we were not allowed to force anyone to leave. The most we could do was remind them that they would be fined if they were found in the building when the firemen were checking the building after a fire alarm. And yes, they would be fined personally, not our department or the building owners.

However, if you're adamant that he needs to comply with your evacuation protocol, you could try appealing to his inner manager and tell him that he should lead by example and set the standard. Him staying behind gives other people a reason to ignore the fire alarm. But if a man who has trouble walking evacuates then nobody else has an excuse.
posted by elsietheeel at 7:48 AM on October 17, 2013

I believe they said that they should wait in a safe place (in that building's case, in the stairwell I think?), and then someone should tell the firefighters exactly where they are.

In in the UK it is possible to have specific spaces allocated as a 'refuge' to fulfil this function. Ie assessed by the fire brigade as somewhere that is likely to have at least 2 hours protection if the building is on fire. Perhaps whoever is responsible for fire safety in your organisation could look into whether this would be possible where you are? You should stay out of it.

(I should say, I am not entirely convinced by the refuge idea myself but thought it worth mentioning. In the event of a fire in the building where I worked I was supposed to push any one using a wheelchair into a specific cupboard then shut the door and leave them there.)
posted by biffa at 7:53 AM on October 17, 2013

Definitely don't bring this up with your boss. Fire drills are largely a waste of time, anyway. If there's a fire, people are smart enough to know how to find and use the stairs. Your boss is making an entirely rational decision and you should respect it. If there's ever a real fire, from the sounds of it, the fire department will be there before your boss can make it down the hall, and at that point you can help him out by telling them where he is and that he needs help.

I get the sense that you're trying to find some moral high ground by saying that "firefighters would have to risk their lives to go into the building and bring him out", but I don't think that changes anything, because (a) that's their job, (b) they're going to be risking their lives if there's a fire regardless of where in the building your boss is, and (c) from the sounds of it your boss is going to need their help if there's a fire, regardless of whether he gets a head start on them or not.

If I were your boss, my approach to dealing with a fire would probably be to wait until I knew there was actually a fire (being told or smelling smoke), close the door to my office to keep the smoke and fire out, call 911 and tell them where I was and wait to be rescued. If your boss is really mobility-impaired, then getting out into open areas where there might be smoke without the ability to evacuate quickly sounds like the riskier option. All of which is to say, respect your boss's decision and don't bring this up with him. He shouldn't have to defend himself to you on this - it's his life, not yours.
posted by Dasein at 7:53 AM on October 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Mod note: constructive, helpful answers folks - reply to the questions asked or don't reply
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:12 AM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I worked in a skyscraper building, I was "safety captain" of our floor. Yes, it was an actual thing in my official employment file.

During a fire drill, I had to make sure everyone evacuated.

People with physical limitations or undue hardships did not have to do a full evacuation, but they had to STOP WORKING and move to a position near the stairwell. That was so firefighters could quickly locate them in a rescue situation. Once I had cleared the floor (and helped the remaining people to the stairwell), then I'd go outside and do a headcount (including people out of the office that day) and report what we had.

We never had a real fire, but the drills seemed to work well in theory.

So...find the safety captain. Or, in the next safety meeting, ask what to do if someone has trouble evacuating (broken leg, etc.).
posted by 99percentfake at 8:14 AM on October 17, 2013 [7 favorites]

Actually, I think you are taking the wrong tack on this. This isn't your bosses problem. This is the problem of whoever is responsible for evacuation planning for your building/office because they have failed to plan for mobility impaired people. There are several options for safely evacuating mobility impaired people that don't involve letting them slowly hobble toward the stairs, per the guide below.

So, find out who is responsible for this and take it up them. You can also call your local fire department and ask them for advice. They like helping people. If you talk to your boss about it, talk to him about in the context of evacuation planning and not about how he just needs to walk out.

National Fire Protection Association's Emergency Evacuation Planning Guide for People with Disabilities

posted by nooneyouknow at 8:15 AM on October 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

For disabled/limited mobility people (since we were on the 24th floor and of course, you can't use the elevator in a fire), I believe they said that they should wait in a safe place (in that building's case, in the stairwell I think?), and then someone should tell the firefighters exactly where they are.

This is exactly what we do in my office. I have a coworker who is very mobility-impaired, we work in a high-rise so the elevators automatically shut down when the fire alarm system is engaged and there is no way this guy can make it down the stairs. When we have fire drills, he waits in the stairwell. In the event of a real emergency, one of our floor safety captains will wait with him and alert the rest of our safety team of the situation so that they can tell emergency responders when they arrive.

If your office is running regular fire drills, then there is someone in charge of scheduling that drill (after all, someone has to alert the local fire department that they're running a drill so that hook and ladder trucks don't show up thinking you're all ablaze). Find out who that person is, and ask to speak to them about what to do if someone can't evacuate.
posted by palomar at 8:17 AM on October 17, 2013

This is something to tell to the fire wardens. In the UK there should be evac chairs on the stairwells to get mobility impaired people down to ground level.

In the UK it is also up to the fire wardens to tell people to leave. Often they choose not to. For example, someone was setting off an alarm weekly, it was a false alarm each time for unknown motives, and my boss wouldn't bother to move, because he knew it was always going to be a false alarm. He was very much a "the world works the way I want it to work!" person, and there was no question of persuading him to move by rational argument, especially not when I should have been moving my own ass out of the building. There was usually a coworker in a meeting with him, looking hangdog.

All I could do was tell the fire wardens that there were two people still up there. I couldn't make my boss want to move, and I couldn't make my coworker locate his testicles and respond appropriately to a fire alarm.
posted by tel3path at 8:46 AM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, someone in the building is in charge of the fire drills/evacuation plans, and they probably assume "everyone knows" that mobility-impaired people go to the stairwell or whatever. If you can find that someone and talk to them, at the very least a memo can get sent out reminding all the building's tenants about what to do if they are unable to evacuate.

Which is important not just because of your boss, but other mobility-impaired tenants, including people who are not normally impaired but have a broken leg or just had back surgery or whatever.

And if nothing else it'll tip off the fire drill person and they can deal with it.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:49 AM on October 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'm on the Safety and Security team for a 50,000-person company in California; my recommendation is to look into the process with the appropriate safety team members at your company.

By learning more about your company's plans for these scenarios, you can more effectively manage your concerns and possibly direct the safety team to check in with your boss about any lingering issues that may exist.

My company takes safety very seriously and firmly educates employees who decline to evacuate. I have also seen responding firefighters swiftly and severely criticize people who were found inside the building during an alarm (these people were not mobility impaired).
posted by JDC8 at 9:28 AM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Following proper evacuation procedures may be a legal requirement. When you talk to HR, ask specifically. Maybe that would help motivate your boss or his manager.

I do not think you should mind your own business. Fires maim and kill.

Fires are tough even when someone survives.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:09 AM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

In in the UK it is possible to have specific spaces allocated as a 'refuge' to fulfil this function.

In US universities, newer buildings will have spaces marked as 'place of rescue assistance', usually on the landings of specific stairwells in the building. I assume that newer non-university office buildings do too.

The OP could consider raising the issue of evacuation of people with mobility difficulties generally with whoever the appropriate person is (if they have a fire captain for the department, that person probably has some idea how to figure out who to ask).
posted by hoyland at 10:46 AM on October 17, 2013

Depending on the state, he can get fined, or the company can get fined, for not properly evacuating during a drill. I know it was a big deal when I worked in a high rise in LA, and HR was always sending out dire warnings for our regular earthquake drills.

If you're in one of those states, maybe mention it sometime casually. If not, well, he's an adult.
posted by klangklangston at 12:19 PM on October 17, 2013

In my (Australian) company we put the people with limited mobility who aren't in a wheelchair on an office chair and push them into the stairwell where they wait it out.
posted by trialex at 2:28 PM on October 17, 2013

If there's a real fire and the fire trucks arrive the firefighters will immediately put their own lives at risk to rescue an individual who has chosen to not evacuate, if they're informed that someone is still in the building.

Some offices make provisions to help disabled people in advance of emergency evacuation.
posted by X4ster at 3:51 PM on October 17, 2013

FYI: Emergency Procedures for Employees with Disabilities in Office Occupancies (.pdf from FEMA and the United States Fire Administration).

More background on Rick Rescorla's effective fire drills and on how they prepared over 2,000 Morgan Stanley employees to leave the WTC safely on 9/11/2001. I link this as one example of how taking fire drills seriously as an organization can make a difference.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:53 PM on October 17, 2013

If the only risk were to him, then yeah, I'd let it go, he can make his own decisions. But the risk to first responders is real and extreme. It would depend on laws/regulations/customs in your area, but I think you should make an effort to take this a bit further. Not with his boss, clearly, but with whatever authorities or floor captains govern things in your area. It's a delicate situation, as you realize. Do you think he's considered the risk to others but that his discomfort/embarrassment outweighs that? If not, maybe it would be helpful to bring it up somehow. In the end, you may not be able to change his behavior, but as things stand now, if something were to happen and he or a firefighter were to get hurt, you'd never forgive yourself.
posted by storminator7 at 11:15 PM on October 17, 2013

I also have mobility problems (paralyzed) and, depending on the situation, I may just ignore the alarm if I know it's a drill (unless somebody finds me and scolds me). It's very awkward if an elevator is involved, because somebody would have to a) carry me or b) strap me to this Hannibal Lecter board so they can get me down the stairs. So I've had instances where administrators explained to me like I was a three-year-old that in the case of fire, I would need to be strapped to the Hannibal board.

In short, fire drills for the non-disabled are fun at best, distracting at worse. For those with a disability, moving around takes a hell of a lot more energy than the non-disabled, I mean, obviously. And then if there is some weird contraption to slide you down the stairs, then yeah, fuck that noise, is my reaction. I have work to do.

If you say something to your boss you may be emphasizing his disability in a really uncomfortable way. Even if the worry is just *you are not doing the fire drill*, it came come across as *hi special cripple unicorn, let me express my worry about you and your crippledness*

Isn't there a person in your organization responsible for making sure that everybody is out of the building? There have been in my workplaces. If this is not *boss ignores fire drill because he knows it's a drill and participating would be 10X more difficult for him than others* and more *we don't know if this guy will leave if the building is burning down* you I suppose might speak to this person.

But please do keep in mind that emphasizing a person's disability, if you are not a doctor or other medical professional, is a huge buzz kill for the disabled person.
posted by angrycat at 3:54 AM on October 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
Thanks everyone for your replies. I wanted to add a couple of points of clarification.

Firstly, we work on the ground floor, and there is level access all the way to the muster point, although it is about 90m (300 feet) away from our office door. So it's not that this man can't get out of the building without assistance.

Also, the times when the alarm has gone off have been false alarms rather than "drills" as I understand them. They are not planned practices, and we only discover that there is *not* a fire when we are given the all clear to return to the building. As far as I know there have not been any drills in the past 2 years, but I work part time so I can't be sure.

In my previous job I worked in a tall building where there was a near miss (fire alarm set off by something smouldering on top of a heater) while I was there, and an actual fire that destroyed most of a floor several years before I started - so I am perhaps a little more freaked out than others might be.

The majority here seems to be saying that I shouldn't say anything to my boss, but perhaps I should mention something general to a safety officer or committee. I will think about whether and how this is doable in my context without dobbing in my boss. I will definitely find out who the appropriate warden is so I can be sure to alert them if my boss does not evacuate next time.

Above all I don't want to say anything that would create awkwardness by drawing additional attention to my boss' disability, so I will tread carefully.
posted by taz (staff) at 6:14 AM on October 18, 2013

If it happens again, I'd say I know it's probably a drill, but I was worried last time you stayed. If it's a fire, I'll inform the firefighters that you're here and then let him make his own choices.
posted by theora55 at 8:05 AM on November 29, 2013

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