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Health and Safety Services

Fire safety procedures - Frequently asked questions

Q1. Do I need to learn different procedures for each Birkbeck building?

A1. No. The instructions are essentially the same in all Birkbeck buildings. However, non-Birkbeck buildings such as Senate House North Block and UCL have their own arrangements that staff using these buildings should study and follow.

Q2. Why is the operation of the fire alarm given as the first priority on discovering a fire?

A2. It ensures that in evacuating people to safety no time is lost on the gamble that a fire can be brought under control. If someone electing to tackle a fire were to be overcome before the alarm was raised, that individual's life and that of others would be placed at risk with no promise of speedy rescue.

Q3 . Should I set off the alarm even if the fire is only a small one, say in a wastebin?

A3. Large fires usually start as very small fires. Take no chances, set off the alarm so everyone can get to safety regardless of how small a fire is when you first discover it.

Q4. Should I set off the alarm if I know there are exams taking place in the building?

A4. Again, take no chances. If you find a fire, set off the alarm regardless of circumstances within the building. The Exams Office have arrangements for examinations that are interupted by a fire alarm that take account of security and lost time.

Q5. What happens after I set off the alarm? Do I call the Fire Brigade?

A5. The Fire Brigade will be called by the Duty Attendant at Malet Street immediately the alarm is sounded. Malet Street reception is staffed 24 hours, 365/6 days per year. You do not have to do so but no harm will be done if you do. However, do not let it delay you moving to an exit . It will also be most useful if you can then give details of what you have found to the Duty Attendant as soon as it is possible to do so.

Q6. What happens in buildings that do not have such total cover by a Duty Attendant?

A6. The fire alarm systems of all buildings are linked to the 555 emergency phone line by an autodialler. When an alarm goes off, the 555 phone rings informing the Main Building duty attendant that the alarm has activated in a particular building and to call the Fire Brigade immediately.

Q7. When the alarm sounds, do the attendants or others investigate to find out if there actually is a fire in case the Fire Brigade's time is wasted?

A7. No. When the fire alarm is heard it is assumed it's because a fire has been discovered.  A delay to investigate further before calling the Fire Brigade could put pesons at risk.

Q8. Sometimes it is discovered that there is not a 'real' fire while the evacuation is going on. Why are the alarms not stopped straightaway and everyone allowed back in?

A8. Cutting alarms short causes confusion and gives out the wrong signals. Occupants will delay their evacuation the next time in case the alarm is again silenced. Such a deliberate delay during a general alarm could put them at risk. Also, large numbers of persons re-entering while others are still trying to leave could lead to falls and trampling incidents.

Q9 Why can we not re-enter as soon as the alarm stops sounding?

A9 When the alarms stop it does not mean that the building is safe. The Fire Brigade may have silenced the alarm to hear better while they tackle a blaze. Also, the alarm may no longer be functioning or may be being reset. One cannot re-enter until all is safe and the alarms are back functioning again. Hence occupants must wait outside until safe conditions are restored and an 'all-clear' given. Delays are very rarely longer than a 15 minutes from the alarm first sounding.

Q10 Why are they so many 'false' alarms in the Main Building?

A10 There are no 'false' alarms. All alarms are real and must be responded to. Some are 'unwanted' - set off by system faults, dust, steam, malicious pranks etc. This is the penalty of occupying a large building with a fire detection system that provides a high degree of protection for its occupants. Having lots of smoke detectors does mean an increased exposure to 'unwanted' alarms but every effort is made by Estates and the Safety Office to keep these to a minimum via managing builders and servicing the system and over a normal year there are generally fewer than 6 'unwanted' alarms at Malet Street. The thought to maintain is, "If the alarm sounds - leave and be safe. If it's not a 'real' fire - be thankful".

Q11 Can we use the lifts during an evacuation?

A11. Generally, anyone using a lift in a fire runs the risk of it breaking down and being overcome by smoke and heat whilst stuck inside. Accordingly, even if a lift is available - it should not be used. The exceptions are the Gordon Square lift, the Malet Street 'main' lifts and the extension building lists. These are specially built to evacuate disabled persons who cannot manage stairs. In an evacuation they are reserved for such persons. Able persons should always use the stairs.

Q12. What procedure should be adopted for persons who cannot move quickly, or at all, down stairs?

A12. As mentioned above, the disabled access lifts can be used to evacuate disabled persons in an emergency. Elsewhere, staircases are the only option. It is a fact that persons who are aged or infirm, persons with lower limb disabilities, heavily pregnant women, etc., can delay the evacuation of others on staircases and if there is any panic they might very well be pushed over by the more able-bodied and a disaster occur. Accordingly, the standard procedure is to evacuate such persons horizontally to a staircase landing and wait at the side with a colleague  until the crowd passes and then descend at their own pace if possible.  Meanwhile a message should be sent in person to the Duty Attendant by a second colleague giving details of location etc. The Duty Attendant will arrange for them to be evacuated by trained staff or the fire brigade if necessary.  Indeed, if it transpires that there is no immediate danger then such persons may not have to evacuate further and so be spared the possible discomfort of descending. All staff should be aware of this procedure for their students. All students with disabilities that prevent their quick recognition of or response to the fire alarms should have been referred to the Birkbeck Safety Officer to jointly develop a Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan.

The staircases of Birkbeck are places of relative safety. Their doors offer excellent fire protection (provided they are not illegally wedged open) for 30 minutes or more - the fire brigade arrive in only about 5 minutes.

Q13. Are there safety reasons why dogs and the like are not allowed in our buildings?

A13. Apart from other reasons e.g. hygiene, noise, nuisance and allergies that dogs etc are discouraged from workplaces there is a sound safety reason for doing so. Their owners will attempt to return to their offices to rescue them in an emergency and in so doing place themselves and others at risk. One only has to think about the instances where owners have drowned trying to rescue their pets from hazardous water and the would-be rescuers of the owners that have also come to grief to appreciate that a similar situation could well occur in a fire. Guide dogs are an exception as they remain with the owner. Other owners might insist that they would keep their dogs with them at all times but they either would not or could not and anyway the other objections would also come into play. Hence, no dogs!

Q14. Do the Fire Brigade charge for call-outs where no fire is discovered?

A14. No - at least not at present. Otherwise people would delay calling them with the result that there would be an increase in serious fires and persons injured or worse, including fire fighters.

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Health & Safety Services, Birkbeck, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HX. Tel: 020 7631 6218, email: