In the blink of an eye a fire can escalate quickly, causing destruction and chaos in its wake. If you happen to be out at a restaurant or public setting do you know what procedures to adhere to?

Greenhouse bar guttered by fire in Sandton Johannesburg
Greenhouse bar guttered by fire in Sandton Johannesburg

People act on instinct and can do strange things when an emergency occurs out of the blue. Footage of a fire that broke out at a Sandton restaurant in Johannesburg on 26 February 2022, showed patrons stomping out the fire with their feet and pouring their drinks onto the fire to try diminish it. These actions did not help the situation.

While being burnt is a definite risk, smoke inhalation is the leading cause of death due to fires. It produces injury through several mechanisms, including thermal injury to the upper airway, irritation or chemical injury to the airways from soot, asphyxiation, and toxicity from carbon monoxide (CO) and other gases such as cyanide (CN).

The fire and life safety systems installed in buildings today, including automatic fire sprinkler protection, are designed to control a fire and therefore lessen the need to evacuate all occupants. In a typical scenario, the occupants of the fire floor and the floors immediately above and below it should immediately use the exit stairs to descend to a floor level that is at least several floors below the fire floor, and await further instruction from safety officials.

Emergency Evacuation Guidelines

fire evacuation signage

A fire alarm activation or potential fire emergency inside a building can happen unexpectedly. When this occurs, a safe and orderly evacuation of everyone inside the building is crucial. All occupants should make themselves familiar with:

  1. Location of fire exits
  2. Location of the fire alarm pull stations
  3. Fire Extinguishers and emergency equipment
  4. Discuss a designated meeting assembly area at least 50m away from the building for accountability.


  • Early warning (typically through an alarm or voice communication system). On discovering a fire, it is the duty of every person to sound the nearest fire alarm immediately. The plan should include the method of raising the alarm in the case of fire.
  • If the fire is out of control and a danger, do not attempt to put it out, evacuate the building immediately.
  • Leave early enough to avoid being trapped.
  • Adequate means of egress (exit routes). In a premises where members of the public are unfamiliar with layout of the building there should be means available to identify the key escape routes. This includes schematic drawings and most importantly emergency escape and exit signs.
  • Follow recommended evacuation routes. Do not take shortcuts, they may be blocked.
  • Pre-determined assembly points should be arranged and a roll-call should be taken.
  • Do not enter the building again until it has been declared safe to enter by the Fire Marshal.

Common Questions Answered

If exiting down stairs takes so long, am I better off going up to the roof and waiting to be rescued there?
No. Many of us have seen dramatic videos of helicopters picking up occupants from the roof of a burning building. This is an extraordinarily dangerous procedure for the occupants, the pilots and firefighters who may be in the building. First, a helicopter may not come to rescue you, thus ascending to the roof instead of descending to grade may have wasted valuable time. In severe fires, the large thermal currents, generated by the heat from the fire, can cause the helicopter to be buffeted up or down, making it hard to control. The resulting down thrust from the helicopter rotor can force smoke and super heated air on top of fire suppression personnel. Most building designs incorporate numerous features that direct occupants to the street or grade level for evacuation purposes.

Can I use the elevator or escalator?
Lifts and escalators should not be used due to possible electrical failure unless they are part of a Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan.

What procedures should be applied for people in a wheelchair or with other disabilities that affect mobility?
Able-bodied as well as disabled occupants must be covered under any written procedures. If your floor has to be evacuated, you should plan to horizontally relocate to a refuge area. In buildings with automatic fire sprinkler protection, this may simply be to an adjacent compartment or office space. In other cases, your building may be provided with areas of refuge. These spaces may be located as stand-alone, barriered compartments on the floor, or they may consist of oversized landings in stairwells. Regardless of which feature you have, your plan includes waiting in one of the designated spaces until fire department personnel can remove you.

If I stay and then the situation becomes untenable and I am trapped, should I break a window? Should I jump?
If you are trapped in a high-rise building, try to locate yourself in an area where you can close the door and seal the cracks to keep smoke out. Call the fire department and report your exact location in the building. Try to be patient. You can signal your position to rescue personnel from a window using a light-coloured cloth, but it is not advisable to break a window. If you can open the window slightly, it is generally safe to do so to allow fresh air in, but be prepared to close it if smoke comes in. A broken window cannot be adjusted to block smoke from pouring in. Finally, falling glass from a broken window can sever fire hoses and severely injure rescue and suppression personnel below. It is very dangerous to use a window for escape from anything higher than the second floor.

Many of these procedures are based on typical events. What happens when the event is not typical?
As with any situation in our daily lives, you are ultimately in control of your fate to a great degree. Thus, you are largely responsible for your own personal safety based upon the circumstances. Detailed procedures, verbal instructions and even past experience may not be adequate to help you deal with extraordinary events. RED, the universal colour for danger can be used to help you in such circumstances.

REACT: Take any indication of smoke, fire or other potentially threatening situation seriously. Activation of building fire alarms, smell of smoke, visual indication of flames, warning from other occupants, arrival of the fire department are some of the attributes that may signal an imminently dangerous situation.

EVALUATE: You must judge the level of threat. This includes confirming evidence or presence of smoke or fire; judging the conditions in your immediate area; self-judgment of your physical ability to relocate or evacuate; evaluation of the needs and abilities of others who may need assistance; consider additional information being received.

DECIDE: There are only two, but difficult choices:

  1. Follow your plan and immediately leave the building.
  2. Follow your plan and stay where you are, or descend to the designated level below the fire floor and be prepared to take protective/defensive action. In this case, anticipated action may include alerting the fire department of your location, seal doors, windows and vents that lead into your space. Do not break out the windows.

What have we learned from this situation?

Take note where the emergency exists are. Ask where the evacuation assembly point is. Look for accessible safety equipment. Evacuate with haste. If you are with a crowd, make sure to inform them where you are going if you leave the table or the bar area. The last thing you want is be stuck in the toilet with nobody turning back to look for you because they think you must have already got out and to a place of safety.

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