On an icy winter day in 1903, 1700 children, chaperones and teachers thronged Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre, eagerly awaiting a matinee musical comedy performance. During the show, a stage light ignited nearby drapery. The blaze spread quickly – exploding into a roaring inferno when actors opened a rear door – and the panicked crowd stampeded toward the very few exit doors. Tragically, the Great Chicago Theatre Disaster killed more than 600 patrons. It did, however, usher in much needed fire safety reforms for commercial buildings.

Regularly evaluating fire safety is a vital activity for all businesses. “It’s important to safeguard the greatest resource your company possesses – your people – but it’s also important to protect their livelihoods, which depend on your business being open and successful,” says John Gugliotta, Owner of Paul Davis of Boston South, Boston Metro West, and Rhode Island. “Nearly half of companies experiencing a fire never reopen. That’s a statistic you don’t want to be a part of. We talk to our customers frequently about how to stop commercial fires before they start.”

Paul Davis recommends six key steps to reducing fire risks at your company:

Train Employees to Avoid Human Errors: Whether through careless cooking in the kitchen, improper handling of hazardous materials or discarding cigarettes in the dumpsters, employees are a very common source of business fires. Create a fire safety plan, train your employees in fire safety, conduct drills and regularly reiterate best practices. Often, local fire companies can help with this task.

Practise Good Housekeeping: Keep the premises – inside and outside – free of debris and accumulated trash. Neat and tidy practises eliminate areas where sparks can smolder unseen or vandals can opportunistically commit arson. Ensure also that all escape routes are freely accessible, not blocked by stored materials.

Properly Store and Dispose of Hazardous Materials: Many businesses  use solvents and fuels – whether they are small quantities of cleaning products or gas stations for vehicle fleets – and safety precautions are necessary even if quantities are small. 

Schedule Regular Inspections and Maintenance: Smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, fire alarms, sprinklers and firefighting equipment are not “set it and forget it” systems. They must be regularly inspected, tested, maintained and, if your footprint grows, upgraded or replaced. 

Establish Safe Smoking Areas: Establish dedicated areas where employees can safely smoke and provide commercial receptacles for safely disposing of smoking materials. These areas should be away from the building and flammable materials. 

Eliminate Electrical Hazards: Are extension cords in use in areas lacking electrical outlets? Is your business housed in an older building? Overloaded circuits, outdated electrical wiring, worn-out receptacles and loose connections are very common causes of business fires. Smart business owners periodically review electrical supply and use by hiring qualified electricians to conduct inspections.

“Prevention really is worth the time, effort and investment,” Gugliotta concludes. 

If your commercial building experiences a fire despite your best efforts, Paul Davis promises to arrive on the scene within four hours of a call for help.