The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates that each year, more than 4,000 Americans die as a result of fire. As if that weren’t bad enough, more than 25,000 Americans are injured in fires, many of which could have and should have been prevented. To top off these staggering statistics, more than 8.6 billion dollars in direct property loss is estimated annually.

So why can’t we get it right?

Losing our “rookie-ness”
It is not for a lack of training, or is it?

As safety professionals, we have all undoubtedly spent hours in the classroom listening to the instructor drilling the same basic principles of fire prevention and fire safety into our already saturated brains.

So why do our workers continue to die in fires that we should have prevented?

My feeling is that it is a simple case of complacency. We all know the laundry list of things to look for to keep us safe in a real fire emergency: keeping the exit routes clear of flammable materials, making sure the exits are clearly marked and operational, and making sure fire extinguishers are charged and ready to go… to name a few.

But we are creatures of habit, no matter how you argue the point. We fall into fixed routines and before you know it, accidents and fires occur. It is what I like to call “losing our rookie-ness.” We accept the fact that someone else is responsible for our safety and that of our fellow workers, and before we realize it, safety becomes one less thing to worry about on a daily basis.

For example, fire extinguishers should be checked monthly to ensure they are ready. How often do you check yours?

Safety requires continual training
Fire is a fast-spreading, indiscriminate killer, and when fires occur, we don’t have the luxury of packing up our things and exiting the workplace in a leisurely manner. The reality is that our adrenaline is flowing and we rush out of the building to safety. Once outside, we gather at a pre-designated meeting place to do a head count and verify that everyone is out of the fire safely.

So if we understand all this, why are there so many injuries and deaths? Why can’t we get it right?

The bottom line is that safety requires continual training and practice drills. As safety professionals, it is our duty to our fellow workers to keep them trained and ready for the real thing.

Employees must be introduced to the fire prevention plan and escape routes when they are first hired, when they are reassigned to a different department, when there is any change in the program, and when we notice a deficiency in the manner to which our team reacts and responds to drills. Employee participation in the fire prevention plan goes a long way toward keeping the workforce focused on the issues. Better yet, it gives the employee a sense of ownership.

Management must lead by example
One of the biggest challenges we face as safety professionals is securing the buy-in of senior management as it relates to our safety programs. This is critical to the successful implementation of a comprehensive fire prevention plan.

Fire drills should be completed two times a year, with additional tabletop exercises as needed to keep department heads, management teams and safety professionals up-to-speed with any concerns or issues that may hinder safe evacuation. Many companies actually take the added step of using Fire Marshals or Fire Rangers to assist in getting employees out of the building in an orderly, safe manner. Whatever it takes, leading by example is the best way to ensure that your employees will be ready.

A written plan and strong training go hand in hand
Having a written plan is a critical aspect of your fire safety and prevention program. Take the time to write your program, and don’t rely on a template you downloaded from the Internet. The written program is a living, breathing document that needs to be customized for each unique site. It also requires frequent oversight and continual updating to reflect any and all changes in the work environment.

Once your written plan is developed, train, train, train. The combination of a written site-specific plan and strong training will keep the emphasis on fire safety and prevention. In this way, you can provide your colleagues with the tools they need to identify a fire hazard and deal with it ahead of time. But in the event of an actual fire, the good news is that everyone will know how to safely evacuate your facility. And at the end of the day — everyone goes home.