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Franklin fire drill a success despite speed bumps, complaints

Seems like there’s only two people in the Franklin Building who love a fire drill. They would be Chief Building Manager Roman Starno and Matthew Leet, Franklin’s engineer and official fire safety director, both of whom had been planning last week’s drill for weeks.

They know that when that bell sounds and takes you away from your work you feel inconvenienced. But what you learn in the process, they say, not only prevents injury and loss of life here at work, but also gives you valuable training for dealing with a real emergency in your own home or anywhere you may find yourself when the big one hits.

“We want emergency preparedness to be a part of everyone’s muscle memory,” Leet says. “When the building drops (his phrase for evacuation mode), we want 100 percent participation that will result in every occupant getting to a safe location quickly.”

Some Franklin occupants said last Wednesday’s fire drill seemed chaotic. The stairwells were jammed. People didn’t know where to go. With Wells Fargo, our usual safe relocation area, under construction, people had to go another half-block to 500 12th St.

But in fact, Leet says, the drill went very well. His best gauge of success was that he and his team safely evacuated and returned about 900 occupants (give or take a few August vacationers) within 64 minutes. He considers that a real achievement, especially with the added speed bumps of the City Center construction and the first-ever attempt to take roll call.

Building Services staff received complaints from some occupants of Franklin’s higher floors, who had to wait the longest to get out and back into the building, Starno says. It does add to the inconvenience for those occupants, he acknowledges, but there really is no right or wrong method to reoccupying the building. Next year, he says, building reoccupation will begin with 12th floor occupants and then alternate each year thereafter.

“It may appear that there isn’t any direction, but things are more organized and more thoroughly planned than people perceive,” says Leet, who received his certification in high-rise fire safety in 2006.

He plans and executes drills with the support of Starno, other building engineers and his team of “floor wardens,” staff volunteers who attend annual training to learn how to safely and effectively move colleagues on their own floor out of the building to a safe area outside the building or in. (Non-ambulatory staff can wait in the stairwells, which are built to withstand fire for 2 hours).

Floor wardens are responsible for attending training and learning what to do in the event of a drill or real emergency. They get to add a bright orange vest to their wardrobe and serve as extra “eyes and ears” around the building for anything out of the ordinary, like leaking pipes or malfunctioning light fixtures.

BRC Assistant Zena Long-Cash, who joined the floor wardens when she arrived at OP 10 years ago, says it’s a challenge to get people to take the drills seriously. But after her experience volunteering to help friends and others displaced by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, the Oakland native is more sensitized than most to the devastation that disasters can bring.

“We have new people coming in all the time, and others need to be reminded what to do in an emergency,” she says, adding that training and drills should ideally be even more frequent than once yearly. She remembers one drill a few years ago that turned out not to be a drill; when people in the stairwells started smelling smoke from a fire in the parking garage, they got serious and picked up their pace.

Critical to every drill’s success, Leet says, are the “evacuee duties,” the dos and don’ts of the building’s regular occupants.

“Fire safety is a shared responsibility, and participation is critical,” he adds. “It doesn’t happen often enough to be an obstacle to your well-being, but it could be an obstacle if you don’t participate.”

Leet put together this short checklist for building occupants in the event of a drill or actual emergency:

  1. When the alarm sounds, stop what you’re doing and proceed to the closest exit stairwell.
  2. Maintain a professional, calm and orderly demeanor and proceed in a timely fashion at all times.
  3. Proceed down the stairs and stay to the right; any fire rescue personnel will be coming upstairs on your left.
  4. Remain quiet so you can hear any announcements.
  5. Exit at street level (stairwell 1 exits on 11th St., stairwell 2 on 12th St.).
  6. Proceed to the safe relocation area as instructed and assemble by floors (your floor warden may not arrive until after you do).
  7. Pay attention and look for your floor warden to hold up the paddle with your floor number on it.
  8. Check in with your floor warden and stay with your floor group.
  9. Be aware of other people and listen for announcements about reoccupying the building.
  10. Reoccupy the building and carry on business as usual.

You can be even better prepared by doing a few things in advance. Familiarize yourself with your own floor and other floors you frequent, and explore how to get in and out via the stairwells. (Note that ground level doors are usually armed.) Make a habit of keeping the things you need the most – your purse, keys and cell phone – in an easily accessible place so you can grab them before you evacuate.

We will all have another opportunity to practice building safety in the Great California Shake Out, a statewide earthquake preparedness event the UCOP buildings will observe. This year’s shakeout is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 20, at 10:20 a.m.

Leet is recruiting floor wardens and asks anyone interested to contact him directly at or 510-587-6102. For more details about safety in all of UCOP’s buildings, go to the UCOP Staff Emergency Preparedness website.

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