Evacuate or Shelter in Place for Fire Alarms

Today’s burning question: We have a retirement community in our district and we recently became aware that the property managers have been advising residents to remain in their apartments during fire alarms. Their philosophy is to “shelter in place” in the event of a fire. Is this wise?

Answer: That question perplexes me. While the all too simple answer is when the alarm goes off folks should evacuate, the truth is we do not evacuate every building when an alarm activates. High rise buildings, hospitals, prisons and certain types of nursing homes are common examples. However, the failure to evacuate a building when an alarm goes off raises some very clear safety and liability issues.

Should a building owner be allowed to make the decision to evacuate or shelter in place? Should the decision be mandated by the fire code or by local fire authority?

This very issue is at the heart of two lawsuits filed over a June 2015 fire that killed one resident of the Marshall Square Retirement Community in Evans, Georgia. Eighty other residents were displaced by the fire.

The suits claim that the retirement community’s management adopted a dangerous “shelter in place” policy that encouraged residents to remain in their apartments rather than evacuate the building.

Among the allegations:

  • The Marshall Square Defendants were negligent in constructing Marshall Square Retirement Community with a flawed architectural design, an inadequate fire protection and alarm system, and highly combustible building materials that failed to meet industry standards for a facility that houses elderly residents suffering from mental and physical limitations and impairments.
  • The Marshall Square Defendants and Defendants Freehof and Bryde were negligent by failing to get elderly residents, including Plaintiff, to evacuate the premises. Rather, Defendants Freehof and Bryde negligently instructed residents, including Plaintiff, to remain in their apartments and not evacuate even as the flames engulfed the building.
  • Defendants Freehof and Bryde negligently failed to recogmze and appreciate how serious the fire was and negligently failed to provide accurate and timely information and instructions for the safe evacuation of persons from the facility.
  • The conduct of Defendants and the negligent acts or omissions by Defendants’ employees, agents, and servants show willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, and that entire want of care which raises the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.

Here are copies of the two complaints:

Cadle v Marshall Square – seeking $5 million in damages

Moye v Marshall Square Class Action Lawsuit – Class Action

Fortunately the local fire department is not named in either suit, but the cases certainly raise the issue of what should be done: evacuate or shelter in place… and – at least in my mind – who should make the decision.

FYI – It is important for folks to have a balanced view of the allegations here. There are numerous wrongful death lawsuits against property owners and fire departments alleging that it is negligent to require elderly residents to a evacuate a building as part of a fire drill. Elderly residents have died due to falls, heart attacks and stokes during evacuation drills. Evacuating – particularly for the elderly – is not a risk free proposition.

More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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