Crowd managers keep cool

Program teaches prevention and safety strategies for fires

April 03, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN STAFF

When the fire alarm sounds at Barbara Rubin's synagogue in Fulton, a stern command comes over the loudspeaker: "Please exit the building."

But when a toddler pulled the alarm during a packed Hanukkah bazaar last year, Rubin learned that the siren and mechanical message weren't enough.

"Not one person moved," said Rubin, facilities manager at Temple Isaiah. "They didn't know what to do."

That lesson motivated Rubin to become certified as a crowd manager through an unusual Howard County Fire Department program started this year.

She and 17 other business and nonprofit group leaders attended a two-hour class last week on exit strategies, emergency plans and fire codes. For some, it was their first lesson in fire safety since high school.

But what left the deepest impression on Rubin and others was a video of the deadly Rhode Island nightclub fire in February 2003 that was sparked by a rock band's pyrotechnics.

Howard County's crowd management program, approved in July, came about because of this tragedy.

Public places, such as schools, nursing homes, theaters and hotels, are now required to have a trained crowd manager for every 250 occupants.

The state fire code requires crowd managers at large facilities, but W. Faron Taylor, a deputy chief for the state's fire marshal, said that Howard is the only Maryland county training them.

Howard's code also is stricter than the state's, requiring a crowd manager at facilities that hold more than 250 people. The state's standard is 1,000 people.

"When we have a new code, we don't want to take a hard-line approach," said Deputy Chief Kevin Simmons, who supervises the program. "We want to invite people out and educate them."

The philosophy behind the class is that people are creatures of habit. Without crowd managers capable of remaining calm and directing people toward exits, Doyle said that precious seconds are wasted.

The video of the rapidly spreading nightclub fire, which killed 100 people, magnifies these human errors.

As soon as the journalist saw the club's foam ceiling catch fire, he began quickly moving toward the exit, while his camera captured concertgoers continuing to bob their heads to the music for several more seconds.

Doyle said that the journalist's reaction was so quick that he must have been trained in emergency response.

Once the danger registered to everyone else, the screaming crowd rushed for the front door, oblivious to side and rear exits. Outside, a large tour bus blocked the path between the firefighters' water source and the building.

In one horrific scene, the journalist, now safely out, captured the club's front door jammed from floor to ceiling with people's heads and arms - all struggling to escape.

"You can see the band crawling over people to get out when there's an exit two feet to the left of the stage," Doyle said. "In a panic, people are going to want to exit the way they remember coming in."

Doyle instructed his students to walk the perimeter of the building before events, checking for adequate lighting and clearing obstructions. Inside, crowd managers need to make sure exit doors are unlocked, paths are clear, the fire alarm system works and aisles are wide enough to meet fire code.

During the event, bouncers or ushers need to monitor the room's occupancy and continually check the exits.

Halfway through the program, three men from Mount Airy Bible Church thought about one possible problem. Terry Michael's fear was that parents would rush to the Sunday school to rescue their children instead of exiting.

The three discussed raising the issue with teachers and parents.

Doyle said that those prevention efforts will increase fire victims' chances of survival. But in many places, the lack of preparation is evident.

Howard County schools, which regularly run drills, are often able to evacuate 1,000 students in three minutes. But Doyle said some office buildings can't get 200 people out in 10 minutes.

"Response times depend upon how often you practice and how knowledgeable you are," Doyle said. "It really is practice makes perfect."

Many of program participants said they plan to send colleagues to future classes, which continue through May.

Rubin said the class taught her how to properly set up for banquets and services, the bulk of her synagogue's large-crowd events. Aisles, which lead to corridors, must be 36 inches wide; and corridors, which lead to exits, must be 44 inches wide, according to the fire code.

"We have to make sure people have enough space to get out," she said. "We're going to be focusing on fire safety when we plan events."

During the presentation, Doyle also cautioned that crowd managers are needed for more than fires.

During a heavy snowstorm in February 2003, the Fire Department evacuated the Ridge Road Wal-Mart. Water was leaking through the ceiling, and firefighters worried that a portion of the roof would collapse.

"Some people walked all the way across the store to get out, passing at least 10 exits," Doyle said. "We even had to call the Police Department in to escort people out. They didn't care. They just wanted to shop."

To register for the class, call the Howard County Fire Department at 410-313-6040 between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.

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