Emergency exits should be manned quickly

Fires in railway tunnels are rare. However, many hundreds of people may try to save themselves and rush to the emergency exits when such an incident occurs. In order to support them and to receive critical information from the people escaping about the situation in the tunnel, all emergency exits should be manned as quickly as possible. To successfully man all exits, a jointly prepared operational plan by railway companies and rescue organisations is required.

Why man emergency exits?

The International Fire Academy's textbook «Firefighting Operations in Railway Tunnels» (p. 122) states: «Often self-rescuers who have made it to an emergency exit despite the smoke need urgent treatment. During the fire of a passenger train in the Hirschengraben Tunnel in Zurich (CH) on 16 April 1991, dozens of travellers got caught in the smoke while fleeing and were only just able to save themselves as far as the portal and collapsed there.» Therefore, all portals and emergency exits should be manned as quickly as possible in order to be able to attend to self-rescuers depending on their physical and mental condition. Outside of danger areas, this is the task of the medical services.

The support or supervision of self-rescuers is initially limited to the areas in front of the portals or in front of the emergency exits because the tunnel may only be entered when the railway traffic operation has been stopped, and the overhead line has been switched off and grounded. However, in safety tunnels, it is possible to proceed to the emergency exits before grounding since there is no danger from electricity here.

Manning the emergency exits is not only for the protection of those rescuing themselves but also for reconnaissance. Therefore, as far as possible, the fugitives should be questioned about the situation in the tunnel and the information thus obtained should be passed on to the fire service incident command.

Who mans the emergency exits?

We have received feedback from practice and operations now that manning emergency exits can be an enormous challenge for the fire services simply because of the initial shortage of personnel. For this reason, we would like to point out once again that, in the view of the International Fire Academy, the prompt manning of emergency exits is not necessarily the task of the fire services; unless this is stipulated by law or regulations. Emergency exits can also be manned by the medical services, the police, or auxiliary staff from the railway companies themselves, especially outside the danger areas.

A simple rule of engagement

For clarification, the didactics and development team now recommends the following rule of engagement:

  • In the event of fire incidents in railway tunnels, all emergency exits should be manned as quickly as possible with emergency personnel performing the following tasks:
    • Obtaining information by interviewing self-rescuers,
    • giving situation reports to the incident command,
    • taking care of the injured (first aid) until the medical services arrive. 
  • In order to be able to achieve this goal, operational planning is necessary. For the planning, the infrastructure managers define together with the responsible authorities, the fire services, and the partner organisations (e.g., medical service, police) which exits are to be manned with which priority by which organisation.
  • The operational planning defines:
    • Location and designation of the emergency exits,
    • approach routes, access to the emergency exits,
    • units of the fire service or partner organisations to be deployed at the emergency exits during the self-rescue phase,
    • reporting channels. 
  • The units shall be equipped accordingly, especially with the necessary means of communication.
  • The aim is to deploy at least two emergency personnel per emergency exit in the initial phase. 
  • Registration of self-rescuers is neither necessary nor feasible in practice from the point of view of a rescue.

Wide variety of emergency exits

The number and structural design of emergency exits vary greatly in railway tunnels. Many older tunnels have no emergency exits other than the portals. In other tunnels, the escape routes can lead into neighbouring tubes, safety tunnels, directly into the open or into buildings and in these, for example, through technical rooms. Also, do the approach routes and accesses vary a lot. Some railway tunnels are equipped with large emergency areas that provide ample space for self-rescuers and emergency services and their vehicles. Other emergency exits are located «in the middle of nowhere» and can only be reached on foot from the outside. Therefore, it is recommended to inspect all emergency exits and also to explore and plan the approach routes.