Thursday, January 3, 2013

Unblock Those Exits Please!

Each time I go into a restaurant, banquet hall or other venue that normally provides seating for a large number of people, I quickly scan the room for the emergency exits. It’s an old habit I developed as a retired career firefighter, one that I used to do almost without thinking. These days, however, I find I’m thinking about it a lot more.

Over the recent holidays, I’ve noticed more emergency exits that are blocked by a full set of table and chairs. One was blocked by a large TV monitor on a stand that, though portable, would have taken someone considerable effort and time to move. Still one other blocked exit had a fully decorated Christmas Tree (see above) just to the side which completely hid the only fire extinguisher in the room.

You don’t have to be a Fire Inspector to realize that any location with a required fully lit “EXIT” sign is also required to keep that exit clear of all obstructions as well.  National fire codes are full of life-safety related requirements that were written following one of several major tragedies in the workplace, in schools and in places of public assembly.  Many of those were written after incidents where piles of burned corpses were found stacked against a locked or blocked exit. 

I know I should be more understanding of the restaurant owner trying to maximize profits by filling what would otherwise be an open space, but I’m more concerned about the disregard for customer and employee safety. I’m also disillusioned about the lack of responsibility shown by the many fire service professionals that I’m sure frequent these establishments and turn a blind eye to the hazard.

It doesn’t take a lot of time to pass on a friendly tip to the manager that blocking emergency exits not only puts their customers and employees at risk, but may even save them a visit from the local Fire Inspector.  In those areas served by volunteer departments, and not able to support a Fire Prevention Bureau, it falls on the volunteers themselves to extend their dedication one additional step to help educate local business owners who ignore this important safety rule. They’re protecting their own families as well.

These days we’re concerned about guns in public, violence in the workplace and malls, and even dedicate TV news segments on unhealthy kitchens.  Why not spend a minute or two to ask local owners and managers to keep our emergency exits clear? Don’t like confrontation? Take a photo with your phone and share with the local FD.

If those responsible for local enforcement won’t do it, you and I should.


  1. Awareness by the owner is the key. I've brought this type of obstruction to owner's attention with mixed results. Some just didn't think about the implication and some were offended that I raised a concern. It is not always clear who has enforcement responsibility,so it is not always easy to file a complaint if you are really concerned about a situation. I usually just don't go back...take my business elsewhere.

  2. Large business, small busniess, resturants, hotels in large numbers are guilty of obsructing exits, I have found exits blocked with stacked chairs and a sign on the wall from management stating "Do Not Block by Order of the Fire Marshal" As fire service professionals, most of whom took an Oath to protect the public it is our responsiblity to call it to the attention of owners and managers. I have made calls to responsible jusdrictions with mixed results and in my own caused enforcement action to be taken.

    Does your jusdiction remind business about the exit requirements.

    a retired fire chief.

  3. Being a State Fire Marshal Inspector and a Fire Service Instructor I use both jobs to get the fire safety point home to facilities. I have seen blocked exits numerous times while taking my wife or family out for dinner and they are getting used to me “inspecting” my way to our table. I have even gotten to the point of not sitting down at the assigned table until the obstructions were removed. (That really did not sit well with my wife because of the embarrassment of it but the facility made an employee train and removed 6 pedestal style coat racks that were blocking the exit) I think that it may not always be a lack of willingness of the local fire service but a time and resource issue. For that reason I have even offered fire education to the facility’s staff as a courtesy to the local fire service and the facility itself.

    I have put the staff members in different fire drill (prior to business opening) situations and blocked off some of their exits. By doing this I normally get one of two main responses from the staff. First off they will say that they will just break the door down… or that they never looked at it that way. It is because of those two answers that I will follow up with video clips and end with a video clip of The Station Night Club fire. Though The Station Night Club fire was not truly due to blocked exits (prior to the pyrotechnics fire on that day) it does drive home to the staff the reality and magnitude of the situation. I will often ask the staff “what entry do you go to when you enter a restaurant?” This question will also get them thinking because being humans we will normally go in the front door and leave by the same door –well most of us- when we enter a restaurant. It is by that reason (our human nature) that we will at many time clog or completely render that main entry useless during an emergency. This issue can be addressed if the staff members are trained to know where their exits are and that in the event of an emergency to guide/direct patrons to exit that way.

    I guess the bottom line is that “WE” as a fire service just need to work together when it comes to fire prevention. The fire service has to do more with less and this is not always a good thing when it comes to our oath of protecting our fellow neighbors. I really think that working with the local fire departments and the facilities is a great way to try and prevent the writing of yet another code in blood!


  4. I cannot pass a blocked exit or extinguisher in a crowded public space without mentioning it to the management. Even in my area where most of the businesses are within a 10 to 15 minute drive of the Beverly Hills Supper Club site and memorial, businesses are not always open to correcting the issues. An explanation of the reason behind the laws and the reminder of the Beverly Hills fire sometimes works but as often evokes a question of "are you threatening to call the fire inspector"? I never even imply that I might call but I find it concerning that the manager's biggest concern is the legal issue instead of the life safety issue. We need to continue to remind the public of the reason for the exits and the potential consequences of blocking them

  5. This situation is also present in Italy. I am a maintenance technician of fire-fighting equipment and safety exits. Every day I happen to find safety exits blocked by closets, clothes hangers, vases, locked with chains and padlocks. Once, I happened to find myself on the second floor of a structure together with a manager who was showing me a locked door, when I asked him to remove chain and lock he refused. Insisting he removed the chain and the lock and told me to be careful, he showed me that the door looked into void. I asked him: but the fire escape ladder where is it ?? ehmm ... we did not have the money, and that's why we blocked the emergency exit...