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Black Friday and Life Safety

Black Friday and Life Safety

Black Friday is almost upon us and for those of us in the fire and life safety business, the signs of the coming shopping rush are everywhere in retail stores across the US. Unfortunately, the signs I’m referring to aren’t the countless “Happy Holidays” or “Black Friday” sale signs – I’m talking about the overwhelming crush of freight that is shipped to retailers preparing for the big shopping days to come in the rush to Christmas.  Most retailers struggle with where to store all this merchandise and too frequently it ends up piled to the ceiling in stockrooms, in aisles, and in front of emergency exits, fire extinguishers and other fire and emergency equipment.   When I was a fire marshal inspecting retail occupancies, I found that most of the employees and managers working in these stores have no idea of the real danger posed by high piling combustible materials or blocking emergency exits with merchandise.  Catastrophic fires in retail establishments are classic “high consequence, low probability” events that most retail workers struggle to see as “real” risks and apathy is the typical response, especially when faced with the much more visible problems associated with trying to work and succeed in retail operations.

I shopped in a number of stores last week and was disappointed to see most of the usual fire and life safety violations in virtually every business I visited, from national big-box retailers to locally owned companies with a single location.

Here’s a partial list of some of the widespread life safety and fire protection problems:

  1. Emergency exits blocked by merchandise displays, palletized freight or herds of shopping carts full of merchandise awaiting its turn to be placed on the shelf.
  2. Obstructed fire extinguishers; frequently so obstructed that the only way an observer can tell there is a fire extinguisher in the area is to note the sign marking the location.
  3. Obstructed electrical panels and other electrical equipment. During this time of the year, it also seems to be quite popular to transform electrical equipment rooms into ad hoc stockrooms.
  4. High piled combustibles.   Aside from the risks associated with stacking or piling merchandise literally to the ceiling and the stress this weight places on racks and shelving units, high piling of combustibles creates ideal conditions for a fire to completely overwhelm sprinkler systems and rapidly spread.
  5. Leased storage containers placed behind stores in areas that are clearly marked as fire lanes and zones.  As a former firefighter, I can attest to how frustrating it is for emergency responders to encounter obstructed fire lanes when responding to a fire because it significantly increases the risk of total structure loss by impeding fast and safe aerial equipment access to roofs and causes crews to make up longer hose lays.

While serious fires in commercial retail properties with modern fire detection and sprinkler systems have become rarer in recent years, occupants may still need to urgently exit the premises for other reasons…such as an active shooter event.  In any case, when a fire does occur in a store, the fire spread tends to be shockingly fast and can quickly take employees and shoppers by surprise as smoke fills the building.   As an added incentive to take these problems more seriously, OSHA is beginning to take a much more visible role in the enforcement of Life Safety-related requirements and the fines for violations have been eye-popping.  See these recent enforcement announcements from OSHA here and here for examples.

If you have responsibility for a retail occupancy, take a few minutes in the next week and make sure your operation isn’t suffering from these types of Black Friday ailments.   Even if you don’t work directly in retail, there is nothing wrong with bringing these issues to the attention of the local or corporate management at the stores you patronize and asking that they correct their fire and life safety hazards.

To learn more about how we can help you and your company with life safety and fire protection problems visit our page: Fire Protection and Life Safety Services.