Everyday Survival In High-Rise Buildings

The memories of individuals jumping from the Twin Towers on September 11th will always trouble us. Are we genuinely secure in these contemporary steel and concrete structures, or are we essentially residing in steel and concrete tombs?

Many of us spend our days or nights in tall city buildings, and one of our greatest fears is the potential disasters that could affect us. The key factor in all stories of survival is being ready—and, naturally, a touch of good fortune.

Emergency preparedness

Being ready for a disaster is more about your mental and emotional state than having expensive equipment. Being aware of your surroundings is crucial for survival. When it comes to life-threatening situations, 90 percent of it is in your head – it’s all about mental preparedness, while only 10 percent depends on having the right equipment.

In most cases, you won’t have the opportunity to practice for emergencies in the building where you work, apart from the occasional fire drill, if they even happen. However, you can still prepare yourself mentally by thinking about and planning for these situations so that they become familiar to you. This kind of psychological preparedness is something every survivalist should embrace.

Knowing the emergency exits is essential for anyone working or living in a tall building. You should be familiar with where they are located and how to reach them. High-rise buildings typically have floor maps near the elevators, clearly marking emergency routes and exits. Hotels usually provide this information behind your room’s door. Even if you’re just visiting, take a moment to look at them and remember the details, similar to how you would count the seats from your seat to the exit on an airplane.

Understanding the location of fire extinguishers is also crucial. Do you know where the nearest one is, and do you know how to use it? Most buildings have A-C type fire extinguishers (effective against ordinary combustibles and electrical fires), but there may be other types in some situations. Only attempt to use a fire extinguisher when the fire is small and controllable.

Remember the “PASS” technique: Pull the pin at the top of the extinguisher to release the lock, Aim the nozzle at the base of the fire, Squeeze the handle, and Sweep the nozzle from side to side to douse the flames. Practice might be rare, so it’s important to remember these steps for when you need them.

Don’t forget the basics

Medical Supplies: Are you aware of the location of the first aid kit in your workplace? Is it fully equipped and up-to-date? Unfortunately, many first aid kits are not adequately stocked. It’s essential to take it upon yourself to ensure that it remains well supplied at all times.

Healthy Office Snacks: Opt for healthier and longer-lasting options. Instead of a candy bar, consider keeping a jar of nuts and dried fruits on hand. They have a longer shelf life and can come in handy during unexpected situations. While it’s unlikely that an earthquake will strike tomorrow, make sure your emergency snacks can be stored for an extended period.

Emergency Contact Information: Do you have the contact information for your emergency contacts readily available? Whether it’s your family, a friend, or a colleague, having these numbers saved on your phone or written down can be invaluable during a crisis.

Backup Power: In case of a power outage, do you have a backup power source for essential devices like your phone or laptop? Portable chargers or power banks can keep you connected in critical situations.

Water Supply: Don’t underestimate the importance of water. Stash a few bottles of water at your workplace or in your car, especially if you live in an area prone to extreme weather events or long commutes. Having access to clean water can make a big difference in an emergency.

Flashlight: A simple flashlight can be a lifesaver during a sudden blackout. Keep one in your office drawer, at home, and in your car. Make sure the batteries are fresh and regularly check that it’s functioning correctly.

Evacuation Plan: Familiarize yourself with the emergency evacuation plan for your workplace or residential building. Know the designated meeting points and escape routes. Being well-prepared can help you stay calm and make the right decisions in an emergency.

Things to keep in mind

Hazardous Materials: Are there flammable or hazardous materials stored in your workplace? Stay informed about their presence and location. It’s crucial to be aware of potential risks and how to handle them safely.

Supporting Disabled Colleagues: Depending on the situation and the nature of their disability, you may need to assist disabled co-workers in finding a safe place during emergencies. Many modern buildings have designated refuge areas, which can be standalone, protected compartments, rooms on the floor, or oversized landings in stairwells with fire doors on both sides. Familiarize yourself with these locations and ensure they have attention-catching items like flashlights and/or whistles. Being prepared can make a significant difference in ensuring the safety of everyone.

Emergency Communication: Have a plan for staying in touch with family members during a crisis. Establish a meeting point or use a designated messaging app to keep each other informed of your whereabouts and safety.

Safety Gear: Depending on your location and job, consider having personal protective equipment (PPE) readily available. Items like gloves, masks, and safety goggles can be crucial in various emergency situations.

Allergies and Medical Conditions: If you have allergies or a medical condition that requires specific medications, always carry them with you. Ensure that your colleagues or loved ones are aware of your condition and know where to find your medications if needed.

Fire Safety: Know the location of fire extinguishers, fire alarms, and emergency exits in your workplace or home. Familiarize yourself with the proper use of fire safety equipment.

Emergency Transportation: Consider alternative transportation options in case your regular mode of transportation becomes unavailable. This could include a bicycle, walking shoes, or a public transportation pass.

Emergency Cash: Keep some cash in a secure place, as ATMs and electronic payment systems may not be available during certain emergencies. Having cash on hand can be essential for purchasing necessities or accessing services.

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Surviving earthquakes in high-rise buildings

During an earthquake, high-rise buildings experience side-to-side swaying due to the lateral movement of the earth. It’s essential to stay low in such situations. Most earthquake-related injuries occur when individuals fall due to the shifting ground or when furniture and building fixtures topple onto them. Here are some crucial steps to take:

Seek Interior Shelter: Get inside the high-rise building and keep a safe distance from windows. The glass is likely to shatter as the window frames buckle. Find cover under a desk or a sturdy table, like a conference room table.

Consider Historic Brick-Clad Buildings: Some historic brick-clad buildings can reach heights of up to 32 stories, like San Francisco’s renowned Russ Building. Many of these structures were constructed in the 1920s and pose a unique challenge. Their wall cladding isn’t securely anchored to the floors, making them behave differently during an earthquake.

Prioritize Safety in Historic Buildings: Unless these buildings have undergone retrofitting, the walls may separate from the floors, leading to collapse. In such cases, your safest option is to position yourself in the middle of the building and wait for the quake to subside before attempting to exit.

Assess the Situation: Once the building stops moving, take a moment to evaluate the situation before leaving your shelter. Be mindful of potential aftershocks. Locate the nearest exit and leave promptly. Pay attention to your surroundings, as falling debris like masonry or glass can pose a danger.

Stay Put If the Building Collapses: In the event of a building collapse, your best course of action may be to stay in place and find a sturdy piece of furniture, such as a heavy desk. Stand beside it with your head protected by your arms. This furniture can potentially support a collapsing wall or ceiling, creating a small pocket of space. While you may sustain injuries, chances of survival increase, and rescuers may be able to extract you safely.

Remember that earthquake safety in high-rise buildings demands quick thinking and careful consideration of your surroundings. Staying informed and prepared can make a significant difference in ensuring your safety during these critical moments.

Surviving fire in high-rise buildings

surviving fire in high rise buildings

According to the National Fire Protection Association, there are more than 15,000 fires annually in high-rise buildings throughout the United States. A significant number of these fires originate on the lower floors, typically the sixth floor or below. High-rise buildings are equipped with several safety features, including heavy fire doors in stairwells, sprinkler systems to contain fires, and mandatory fire alarm systems with emergency voice communication capability.

Assessing the Situation: When confronted with a fire in a high-rise building, it’s crucial to assess your surroundings carefully. Determine whether the fire is above or below your location. Are the hallways and stairwells filled with smoke? Do you know the location of the nearest alternative stairwell? In such situations, situational awareness is paramount. Listen for instructions from emergency response personnel, who will provide guidance for evacuating the affected floor and those above and below.

Two Appropriate Reactions: There are two appropriate responses to a building fire:

Exit via Stairs: If conditions permit, use the stairs to evacuate the building. This is the preferred option when it’s safe to do so.

Stay Put: If leaving the building is not a viable option due to fire severity or blocked escape routes, stay where you are. It’s important to note that rooftop rescues involving helicopters, often seen in movies, are not standard fire safety procedures. Severe fires generate strong thermal currents that can make helicopter rescues challenging to control. Helicopter rotor downwash can also push smoke and superheated air onto those below.

If Trapped: If you find yourself trapped above a fire, move to several floors above the fire-affected area and remain in place. Contact the fire department to relay your location. Additionally, signal your presence by placing something light-colored, like a whiteboard or your shirt, on a window. Avoid breaking the window, as it may worsen the situation by allowing smoke to enter and potentially creating a chimney effect, drawing smoke and flames upward.

Navigating Smoke: If you are on the move and smoke is thick, drop to your hands and knees and crawl. Since hot air rises, the air near the ground is typically clearer. Test doors with the back of your hand before attempting to open them, as it is more sensitive to temperature changes. While not the recommended approach, a survivalist may explore external devices such as window-cleaning rigs or rappelling devices if available in their office.

Surviving a shooter/hostage situation in high-rise buildings

In high-rise buildings, the guidance from public safety officials during active shooter situations emphasizes the importance of swift action and critical decision-making:

Evacuate the High-Rise Building: The primary recommendation is to evacuate the high-rise building as quickly as possible, using any available means while avoiding drawing the shooter’s attention, if feasible and safe to do so. High-rise buildings provide various exit routes, and it’s crucial to be familiar with them.

If Unable to Escape, Hide or Barricade: If escaping is not an option, find a secure hiding place or barricade yourself. Heavy office furniture like desks can be used as barriers. Tables, chairs, and trash cans can also serve as obstacles to slow down or obstruct the shooter’s advance.

Avoid Obvious Gathering Spots: Avoid gathering in lunchrooms or conference rooms, as these areas may be targeted by the shooter. In such situations, it’s better to disperse and find separate hiding spots rather than remaining in a group. Having a colleague as a buddy can be helpful for mutual support and protection.

As a Last Resort, Engage: If all else fails and as a last resort, consider engaging with whatever improvised weapons are available, whether it’s a chair or a heavy flashlight. Attempt to approach the shooter from behind, if possible. Remember, once you engage, do not stop; continuous movement is vital to reduce the risk of becoming an easy target.

Coordinated Action: If you are with a trusted colleague, coordinating your actions as a pair can provide added strength and vigilance. Keep an eye out for each other’s safety and well-being.

Interacting with Law Enforcement: If you find yourself behind a locked door when law enforcement arrives, ask for identification or call dispatch to verify the officer’s identity before opening the door. Cooperate fully with their instructions, understanding that they may not distinguish you from the threat until the situation is clarified.

If Taken Hostage: If you become a hostage, prioritize your survival. Avoid attempting to negotiate or argue with the gunman, as many are unpredictable. Patience is crucial in this situation. Stay vigilant and observant; there may be opportunities for release or escape, and the safety of others could rely on the information you provide.

In high-rise buildings, where escape routes and hiding places may differ from traditional settings, these guidelines can help increase your chances of survival during an active shooter incident. Remember that quick thinking, adaptability, and cooperation with law enforcement are vital in such critical situations.

Surviving tornadoes in high-rise buildings

Tornadoes can form so rapidly that little warning is possible, unlike hurricanes that gradually build up. Just like with any disaster preparation, individuals in high-rise buildings must stay vigilant regarding weather conditions. Here are some crucial tips for staying safe:

Recognize Tornado Warning Signs: There are distinct signs that indicate conditions are ripe for a tornado to form:

  • Dark, often greenish sky
  • Large hail
  • Low-lying, dark, swirling clouds
  • A loud roar similar to a freight train

Avoid Windows: During a tornado, it’s vital to stay away from windows. Even if the glass doesn’t shatter due to the strong winds, the building’s movement or debris carried by the tornado may pose a significant threat. Flying debris is a leading cause of injuries during tornadoes.

Seek Shelter on the Lowest Floor: Make your way to the lowest floor possible and find an interior room, stairwell, or hallway. Avoid large, clear-span areas like sales floors, which may be more vulnerable to damage. If you suddenly find yourself trapped, locate an interior room and hunker down beside a sturdy piece of furniture, with your arms over your head for protection.

Know Designated Refuge Areas: Most high-rise buildings in hurricane- and tornado-prone areas have designated refuge areas within the building. Familiarize yourself with the location of these safe zones in advance, as they offer enhanced protection during severe weather events.

According to the National Weather Service, whether facing tornadoes, waterspouts, or hurricanes, the best advice is to seek shelter in an interior part of the lowest floor of a sturdy building. Avoid being outside, even when faced with unusual circumstances, like the possibility of sharks falling from the sky. Staying indoors in a secure location remains the safest course of action during extreme weather events in high-rise buildings.

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Surviving blizzards in high-rise buildings

Imagine this scenario: You’ve been working late on a project, completely unaware of the weather outside. Suddenly, the lights and your computer go out. A glance at your phone reveals it’s 8 p.m., and the winter storm watch has escalated into a full-blown blizzard, leaving you trapped inside your high-rise building. Here’s what to do:

Check Your Supplies: Assess your essentials. Is your smartphone charged, and do you have an external battery in your backpack? These will be crucial for communication and staying informed.

Know Your Building: Determine if you’re in a modern high-rise with emergency backup systems or an older one relying on boilers in the basement and radiator heat. If the backups haven’t kicked in, contact maintenance or building management for assistance.

Collaborate with Others: You’re likely not alone in the high-rise building. Seek out cleaners, maintenance workers, or security personnel who may be present. Pool your resources and knowledge. They might have access to upper or warmer floors, such as the basement with boilers in older buildings, or other offices where you can find food and snacks. Don’t hesitate to share someone’s lunch if necessary, but be courteous and leave a note.

Prioritize Survival: After alerting emergency personnel, loved ones, and your boss about your situation, focus on staying warm, fed, and hydrated. If you commute, your heavy coat, scarf, hat, and gloves should be on hand. If you have a car in the building, retrieve your survival kit, which should include an emergency thermal blanket.

Stay Warm: Protect your head, neck, and wrists as they lose heat quickly when exposed to cold air. Wear your scarf and hat to keep warm. If your office has large coffee thermoses, fill them with hot water while it’s available. Collect food and water supplies, find a small office space, and block any drafts. Prevent heat from escaping by closing blinds and curtains.

Conserve Phone Battery: Conserve your smartphone battery by limiting unnecessary usage. Keep it warm, as cold temperatures can drain the battery faster.

Share Body Heat: If you’re with others, don’t underestimate the benefit of sharing body heat. Being in a small office with several people will help maintain warmth, even if you’re not snuggled up.

In high-rise buildings during winter storms, it’s essential to stay resourceful, collaborative, and focused on staying warm and nourished until help arrives or conditions improve.

Evacuating your pet

evacuating your pet from a high rise building

For survivalists who bring their dogs into the workplace, ensuring the safety of their furry companions is paramount, especially during times of natural disasters. Here’s what you need to know:

Pet Evacuation Standards: In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards were enacted into law to address the needs of individuals with pets and service animals during emergencies. This means that your pet’s rescue and well-being are now an integral part of disaster preparedness efforts.

Your Presence is Their Best Chance: The best chance for your pet to survive any disaster is with you. Do not assume that your pet will fare better on its own. Keep your dog leashed and close to you to maintain their composure and safety during chaotic situations.

Valuable Resources: For detailed disaster preparedness information specific to pets, visit the American Veterinary Medical Association’s website at avma.org/disaster and the Humane Society’s website at humanesociety.org. These resources provide valuable guidance on how to protect and care for your beloved pet during crises.

Ensuring the safety and well-being of your canine companion in the workplace during emergencies is not just a responsibility but also a key element of effective disaster preparedness. Be informed, stay prepared, and remember that your pet’s safety depends on your actions.


Disaster preparedness is a critical aspect of safeguarding yourself and others in high-rise buildings during various emergencies, from fires and active shooter situations to natural disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes.

Staying informed, knowing your building’s safety features, and having a plan in place can make a significant difference in ensuring your safety and the safety of your colleagues or loved ones. Whether it’s seeking shelter, evacuating, or knowing how to react in unexpected situations, being prepared and aware is the key to surviving and minimizing risks in high-rise environments.

Recommended resources for preppers and homesteaders:

Buying your first gun – Things you should know

How to build an underground cellar for less than $400

10 Best MREs for Emergency and Survival Scenarios

Ingenious DIY projects for a Self-Sufficient Homestead

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