Karen Raisch-Siegel is the executive director of LifeWorks of Southwest General. LifeWorks is a 64,000-square-foot fitness center owned and operated by Southwest General Health Center. Karen earned her master’s degree in exercise physiology. She is a certified First Responder with the State of Ohio and a certified group exercise instructor. Karen has been working in the fitness industry for the last 18 years. She hasserved as a fitness instructor, personal trainer, group exercise instructor and program director. Karen is responsible for more than 100 employees and 5,000 members, however, she still enjoys making time to teach her arthritis, aerobics and Pilates classes.

Imagine it is 6 p.m. on a Monday night, and your facility is packed with members. All of a sudden, the fire alarm goes off. Would you be able to safely evacuate your members and employees?

Our hospital-owned facility has many fire drills a year. I thought we were prepared for a fire emergency until our maintenance manager went to check out a situation in our building. I then realized that the way we were practicing our hospital drills wasn’t best suited for our fitness center. So, I turned to our local fire station for help. I contacted the assistant chief who visited our facility to discuss our safety procedures. He provided me with the necessary knowledge to design a thorough emergency plan. He even arranged to have a lieutenant from the fire station attend an all-employee meeting to review fire safety with my staff.

Here are 15 important points I learned about preparing for an emergency.

1. You can save lives by having a plan in place and making sure that all employees know and practice this plan.

2. Pre-plan your building by being aware of the potential hazards that may be at your facility and identifying your escape routes.

3. Assign responsibilities to different staff members in the event of an emergency.

4. Train your staff. It’s critical for staff members to take charge of a situation and be able to direct people out of the closest exit.

5. Know your secondary exits. Eighty percent of people go out the same way they came in.

6. Know where your fire extinguishers are. You may be able to control smaller fires with extinguishers, but try this approach only after you’ve pulled the alarm.

7. Call 911 after you’ve pulled the alarm. By calling 911, you can provide more detailed information. The firefighters will receive the information in route.

8. Know your fire alarm system and your panel, and what it means. Employees need to be able to read the panel and use the information provided.

9. All staff must be empowered to act upon seeing anything unusual. Employees sometimes second-guess themselves and are afraid to pull the manual station. The fire department prefers people to overreact rather than waiting until a situation is too hard to control.

10. Lose the “It will never happen to me” attitude. Gas lines, pool chemicals and electrical closets are almost all located in our facilities.

11. Get a spokesperson to greet the fire department and to provide an update of the situation. This person could be your manager on duty.

12. Tell your key people to not be afraid to identify themselves as the person in charge during an emergency situation.

13. While employees need to know that they can check for others in your facility, they should never put themselves in harm’s way.

14. Drills are very important, but you need to keep them simple. And, practice, practice, practice. Your staff will respond the way they practiced.

15. Never silence an alarm until you confirm the problem.

I strongly recommend every facility manager to contact their local fire station. We may be experts in fitness, but they are experts in fire safety.