Why Evacuating A Building Is Hard

evacuating a high rise buildingHow many of you work in a tall building such as a high rise or skyscraper? What about maybe a medium sized office building like 5-10 floors? Have you ever sat back at your desk or whatever and really thought about how you’d get out if you really had to? It’s important to know. Imagine an actual disaster where every single person inside your building had to get out. At once.

The new hires who don’t know their way around the office, the elderly people that move a tad slower, the hyper office team that is always shouting and pointing – they all have to get out. A 40 story building can have what, at least a thousand people?

I received this alert from the Googs in my email a while ago and wanted to share the content with you guys. This post here is not a procedure on evacuating a building but rather why evacuating a building can be so difficult. And that should point out why you should have a plan.

Evacuating a building isn’t just hard for properties with multiple floors either. Picture some hospitals. Most are just a few stories, three or four. But it is also full of patients in beds, on machines, children. Trying to empty out any building, a hospital, school, office, is challenging.

Anything Can Happen

800 5th Avenue Building

800 5th Avenue Building

As we all know, anything can happen at any time. Maybe some form of a natural disaster such as an earthquake, hurricane, or storm. Sadly some negative things like an attack or crime can prompt a building evacuation.

One time I was at work in downtown Seattle at the building to the right. It was 2001. The building was 42 stories above ground and then had an underground 5 story parking garage. I was on the first floor of the underground garage, underneath a large piece of metal duct work when it hit.

It registered 6.8 on the Richter scale and lasted for over 40 seconds. The main Hines office was on the 38th floor and a meeting was happening at the same time.

According to management, they told us the building swayed, teetered, and twisted. Exactly like it was supposed to. It flexed. Apparently the other taller buildings in the area were swaying too. Imagine seeing that skyline. A ton of buildings built from concrete and steel dancing in the air like a bunch of dandelions. But this is how these buildings in Seattle were designed – to flex and twist due to the high earthquake activity in the region.

I don’t know if you can see them but if you look at the picture of the building, into the windows, you can see X shaped beams. Those are there on purpose to help support the building during those twisting motions, kind of like a skeleton. Crazy right?

So the article that got sent to me is from nextcity.org. It looks like it is associated with Siemens and the purpose of their article is to discuss the hazards of evacuating a high rise building as well as point out that perhaps using an elevator in an emergency isn’t necessarily a bad idea. We are going to forget about the elevator part for now and just focus on the evacuation and some dangers you should consider.

There are a couple main things the article pointed out that we are going to take a look at. They wrote that most difficulties associated with trying to empty out a building come down to three things:

  • Design
  • Obstacles
  • Psychology

Building Design

First, buildings are not designed for mass exit. If they were constructed that way, large enough to allow for everyone to exit safely and quickly, that’s what the entire building would be for.

Elevators for example are usually built in banks that go to certain floors where you can then interchange. If an elevator had to serve all the way to the top of some huge building, the equipment need to run it would take up a large amount of building space. It’s the same thing with stairwells.

Some buildings, good ones, already have evacuation policies and procedures in place. Sometimes they will have the tenants exit in phases. Unfortunately, like in a sudden disaster, sometimes you don’t have time to exit in phases. This sudden rush of people trying to exit highlights a flaw in building design. One that is kind of unavoidable though.

Another reason exiting a building in a hurry becomes difficult is due to poor observation of building code. We could probably just as easily call this laziness.


building evacuation plan

Sample evacuation plan.

Obstacles or hurdles in the way present a huge challenge in building evacuations. By in the way I mean impeding the full flow of traffic along the exit or egress route.

How many times have you gone into a stairwell only to find a makeshift storage area because some nearby office became too full? Or bad lighting? Maybe the egress path is hard to see because it is so badly illuminated.

Here is an example for reference.

Currently I am working in a hospital, one where most of the patients are in bed. I just took a tape measure and measured the width of a standard stairwell and the width of a standard hospital stretcher.

The width of the stairs between the hand railings is 54″. The width of the stretcher is 34″. Subtracting the two, we are left with 20″ of room if the bed is perfectly sideways.

Why is this an issue?

If you were to review some current building evacuation procedures, you would find that some of them call for specific actions. Actions designated people need to take in order to help assist in the evacuation. Some floors may name a fire team member.

The role of this fire team member is a lot like your teacher back in grade school. They do a head count and make sure all of the employees from that area are accounted for. Another one of their duties is to make sure that all people from their floor are safe. This includes elderly, disabled, and handicapped people.

Sometimes, if a person is confined to a wheelchair, the procedure states to get them to the stairwell which should protect them for a set amount of time in the case of an emergency such as a fire.

Taking this evacuation back to a hospital setting, sometimes it may be best to place a patient in the stairwell during a fire. Picture them in a bed, tucked up against the wall, taking up 34″ of space. This leaves you and the rest of the building occupants 20″ to exit the stairwell. This doesn’t account for the firemen coming UP the stairs to combat the fire.

Can you see how quickly that space evaporates? Especially if you have any obstacles or hurdles in the way during the evacuation.

One last factor the article looked at was the seemingly unpredictable psychology of people. How? Keep reading and find out.


There were basically three factors building designers said impacted crowd behavior. They all make sense too, and even I, Mr. Building Engineer, am guilty of all of them. What about you? The three they discussed were:

  1. Parents and their kids
  2. People freezing up
  3. Idea of “it wasn’t so bad last year”


The people that study this sort of thing – buildings, crowd behavior, etc. – found a funny thing when watching people that had children. Unlike the majority of people who try to hurriedly exit a building during an emergency, parents generally ran towards their children regardless of the location of the emergency.

Makes sense though right?

However, sometimes a parent might feel the need to run against the traffic, or against the current of the stream. This poses a problem because it disrupts the flow.

Freezing Up

They also discovered that people temporarily freeze up, they tend to look for other clues or signs that something bad is really happening first. Oh, it’s maybe just a false alarm, or they think the building is performing some sort of testing.

What was one of the cardinal rules they taught you in 3rd grade during a fire drill? Leave everything on yours desk, and just exit the school.

But what do adults that work in offices do? They grab their bags, maybe a lunch, phone and have to unplug the charger. It can’t possibly be a real emergency could it?

Not so Bad

This behavior sort of goes with the one above. Often people will hear about something and immediately downplay it. This happens a lot with the weather.

“Oh, the storm couldn’t really be as bad as the one last year.” And then in the instance where the weather has caused an emergency, it might be too late to act.


There you go. The object of this post was to get a discussion going about potential dangers or hazards that we may face when trying to quickly exit a building. These factors all play a role in how hard, or easy, it would be to evacuate any facility or property.

We took a look at three main areas – the design of the building, obstacles in our way of egress, and then crowd psychology or behavior. All of them have an impact on how difficult it would be to actually get out safely but two of them you and I can control.

We can control the obstacles and the behavior. Don’t store anything inside a stairwell, don’t try to come up with your own evacuation plan or procedure. Don’t go against the flow or buck the system when it comes to personal safety.

Here is a link to the original article. So what about you? Does your office have a procedure for evacuation? Do you know it? Are there different policies for different casualties? I’d love to know how it works in your area or business.

Got a question or comment? Don’t be shy, leave it below. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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