One of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s main goals through the Disaster Help Desk for Business is to help small business owners create a disaster preparedness plan that includes fire safety.
Fires are costly disasters and impact numerous businesses every year. According to the website Growing Your Biz, approximately 10% of insured small businesses file claims for fire incidents each year. The same website tells us that a study of small-business property and liability insurance claims show the average cost of fire damage to be $35,000.
Well thought out and effective fire plans include both fire-prevention measures and safety measures that will be taken if a fire ignites.
Let’s start with fire prevention. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), almost half a million structure fires ignited in 2017—and 28% of them were non-residential fires.
So how does a small business tackle fire prevention?
These trends can help you better understand which fire risks are most relevant to your workplace. Statistics from NFPA show that:
- The most common time for an office fire is lunchtime, between noon and 2 p.m.
- 69% of office fires happen between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.
- The most common causes of office fires are cooking equipment and electrical equipment.
- In manufacturing facilities, the leading causes of fire ignition are heating equipment, stop tools, and mechanical failure/malfunction.
- In restaurant environments, any of the cooking equipment that produces grease-laden vapors is susceptible to a buildup of grease not only on the cooking surfaces but also in the ventilation and ductwork systems, which increases ignition risk.
- Ignition causes that are found across multiple work environments include overuse or improper use of extension cords, overloading older electrical systems, allowing lighting fixtures that give off extreme heat to be too close to combustible materials, and supplementing normal building heating systems with space heaters.
Additional fire-prevention measures to keep in mind include:
- Paper and other dry waste should be stored and disposed of in an orderly fashion—away from work stations and electrical equipment—to reduce the chance of damage or life risk if they accidentally ignite.
- Office and factory electrical equipment get hot and should be maintained regularly to thwart faulty wiring or other risk of ignition.
- Combustible materials and electrical equipment don’t mix; keep them separate in your work environment.
Robert Solomon, NFPA’s Director of Built Environment Codes/Fire Protection Systems, says it’s a great idea for business owners to proactively ask their local fire department to coordinate with them in a fire-prevention plan. “An important part of the many services provided by the fire department is the inspection of existing businesses and buildings,” says Solomon. “The inspections aren’t done to penalize the owner or get anyone in trouble — they are done to protect the owner, the occupants, and ultimately the firefighters who might have to respond to a fire at the business.”
This coordination with the local fire department is also a good time for the firefighters to become more familiar with your business’ physical layout, including basements, storage rooms, windows that are hard to open, and other facility features that might be unique to your built environment. They may also recommend fire-suppression resources such as a sprinkler system. While sprinkler systems are often perceived to be too costly to install, we encourage you to weigh the cost of safety precautions against the potential cost of harm to both property and life if a fire were to break out.
When it comes to fire-safety planning, small business owners have a legal responsibility to protect their employees and customers from fire risk.
Notably, NFPA’s Solomon says that trying to fight a fire is not normally a recommendation from NFPA. “The most important thing is to make sure that all of the employees and customers can evacuate safely from the building,” says Solomon. He acknowledges that some larger businesses may have dedicated store employees or a security staff who are trained to use portable fire extinguishers for early-stage fires, but “that likely is not going to be an option in some of the smaller businesses.”
Here are three ways to increase fire safety in business establishments:
- Overcrowding: Don’t Do It. Overcrowding in any establishment is a threat to life safety when a fire is involved. It impedes the opportunity to escape safely. Overcrowding can include exceeding the number of permitted people on the premises, as well as storing supplies and materials in a disorderly fashion and arranging or leaving furniture in a disorderly fashion.
- Know Where to Go and Who Is Going with You. Every business needs an evacuation route and it needs to be taught to every employee. It could be included in onboarding, with reminders and a clear written fire policy posted throughout the work environment. Evacuation plans should call for proper lockdown procedures and a way of accounting for everyone. Like all disaster plans, the more simple and straightforward they are, the more likely they can be realistically implemented when the time comes.
- Drilling: Do It. Fires, like any moment of unexpected disaster, are very stressful for the people involved. Strike First Corporation of America asks us not to assume that common sense will prevail during a fire and that employees will know what to do to remain safe and protect customers and business assets. Fire drills should be practiced every six months to a year. They should also come as a surprise to all or most employees, which helps employees perform with the correct procedures and behaviors under the fight-or-flight response system that is natural to us as humans.
It is important to remember that no matter how thoughtful one business owner is in minimizing potential fire-ignition sources and having a thorough safety plan, the business next door might not be. Fires can spread rapidly among businesses that are located close together. Talk with your neighbor and see what they have done for fire preparedness—you may be able to share helpful tips with one another and even mobilize an entire business district in a commitment to fire prevention.
It takes a community to keep businesses safe from fire hazards. We encourage all small businesses to take some time this summer to evaluate their fire risk, prepare a safety plan and practice it with employees, and consult the local fire department to review prevention measures and safety plans.
The Chamber Foundation’s Disaster Help Desk is here to help small businesses build a disaster preparedness plan. Learn more here.