No one expects to have a fire or other disaster at work, but they happen every day in office buildings across the country. We like to think of our workplaces as predictable outposts full of copiers, Keurig machines, and maybe a few too many meetings. But the truth is that when a fire breaks out, employees’ lives can be on the line. You and your company’s leaders need to be familiar with how to conduct a fire drill at work. By scheduling regular fire drills, your company can plan for a potential fire and prepare employees to exit the building safely.
Why fire drills at work are important
The National Fire Protection Association reports that there was an average of 3,340 fires per year in U.S. office properties from 2007-2011. Armed with stats like this, your company would be wise to plan regular fire drills. In fact, many landlords and office management companies require this in their leases.
However, fire drills are not only to prepare for fires. They train employees on how to leave the office quickly in case of any emergency, whether that be an active shooter or natural disaster. Evacuation skills should be a crucial element of all employees’ training.
Repetition is key
Ask any school-age child about fire drills and they will probably mention one within the last few months. Schools repeat fire drills often so that routine becomes habit and kids know what to do without really thinking about it. It’s good to remember the “Seven P’s”: Proper prior planning and preparation prevents poor performance.
Clearly, fire drills are a great example of “hope for the best; prepare for the worst.” No one really thinks their beige cubicle is going to go up in flames. But many of us don’t even know where the fire exits are located in our buildings! It’s possible exit doors are partially blocked or doors are jammed. Regular fire drills will reveal these issues.
A culture of drills can save lives
One of the most gripping stories of disaster drill planning is the story of Rick Rescorla. Rescorla safely led 2,700 Morgan Stanley employees out of the World Trade Center’s South Tower on Sept. 11, 2001. As Morgan Stanley’s security chief, he was one of the few who saw the vulnerability of the towers. After surviving the 1993 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, Rescorla was certain they would eventually be attacked again. He made Morgan Stanley employees practice orderly and swift evacuation drills every three months. Even though the drills were conceived as a response to a terrorist attack, they would have been useful in a fire, too. Rescorla’s foresight and leadership saved lives.
Develop a detailed fire evacuation plan
Before sending people scurrying for the exits, make a detailed fire evacuation plan. As part of this work, you’ll want to consider various scenarios: where might a fire start? Are there areas of the building more likely to start fires, like kitchen appliances or chemicals in the warehouse? Do wildfires threaten your business during the summer?
We previously discussed how to create a fire evacuation plan for your business, and here are the highlights:
Your company will want to:
- Establish roles and responsibilities for the fire evacuation team, including that of fire warden
- Create a communication plan (using a redundant, multi-channel, 2-way mass communication system such as AlertMedia makes this easy)
- Plan and map routes
- Know your tools such as fire detectors, fire alarms and fire extinguishers
- Rehearse fire drills at least twice per year
- Make sure to follow-up and report using a modern employee notification system so you can determine the safety of all employees
How to conduct a fire drill at work
Ensure everyone is on board
Now it’s time to get down to the drill. Once you have your fire evacuation plan in place, you know the routes. But it’s not as easy as simply pulling the alarm lever. Everyone needs to be on board when you conduct a fire drill at work. First of all, you must ensure the entire fire team (from the warden on down) is trained, informed, and ready to make the drill a success. You need executive buy-in, since the drill will take people away from the factory line, their desks, and the warehouse. And perhaps most importantly, all employees need to understand the importance of the fire drill, otherwise they won’t take it (or you) seriously.
Communicate your plan
The key to a successful fire drill at work is communication. Announce the first fire drill in every place employees will see it, including platforms such as an employee portal, intranet, or website; Slack channel; newsletter; and text message. Employee communication software that covers the most common communication channels will make this a lot easier. Schedule the fire drill on the company Outlook or Google calendar. Include the fire team and their roles, evacuation maps, and expectations.
Set goals for your fire drill
Your fire team will want to set goals and standards for the drill. If you include these in your first drill, you can try to improve them in subsequent drills. For instance, if your first drill takes 15 minutes to get everyone safely outside, because you discover people are visiting the restroom or wrapping up calls, you have work to do.
Some metrics to measure:
- Time to evacuate
- Time to report completion of the drill
- Successful shutdown of equipment (where appropriate)
Rehearse the fire drill
Conduct rehearsals of increasing complexity. For example, your fire team leaders could first rehearse “on paper” where they describe the plan to the fire warden. Then, the team should describe their actions during a fire drill and analyze any perceived weaknesses or confusion. After the fire team leaders understand their roles, they should physically walk through the fire drill.
Next, you should conduct a full rehearsal with as many of your employees as possible. Large companies may favor doing this by building or by section to prevent business disruptions.
Once your employees have mastered a basic fire drill, your fire team should design more intricate scenarios. Change up variables within the drill to train employees on how to react when disaster strikes. By adding obstacles such as closed stairwells, broken elevators, and blocked exits, you can simulate a more realistic environment.
The Rally Point
Fire drills are not successful unless every employee is accounted for outside of the building. This crucial step of the drill occurs at the rally point. The rally point should be a pre-designated location that is strategically placed outside the building. For large companies, multiple rally points should be created for maximum efficiency with a separate fire team leader at every point.
Companies with a mass emergency notification system such as AlertMedia’s can now use the survey feature and event page to track the status of employees who have yet to reach the rally point. For those who may have lost their phones while evacuating, fire team leaders should also utilize old school roll call to ensure that every employee is accounted for.
If someone is missing, fire team leaders should follow the predetermined reporting protocol and immediately alert the authorities as well as the entire fire team.
When you conduct a fire drill at work, you should choose a few people who are not on the fire evacuation team to act as neutral observers. They should be tasked with looking for the following:
- Large groups moving slowly or talking with each other
- People on cell phones or using other mobile devices
- Unhelpful behavior such as grabbing coats, purses, and bags
- Difficulties for people with disabilities such as hard-to-open doors or slippery stairs
- Employees who choose a different exit rather than the one closest to their work station
At the conclusion of the fire drill, the observers should conduct a debriefing going over their observations. The meeting location is a convenient place to conduct this debrief, since memories of the drill will be fresh. Gather the fire team together to go over what happened and what can be improved for next time. Assess all of the steps above and compile notes on what worked flawlessly and what was sub-par.
Deep-dive into questions such as:
- Did employees close the doors upon exiting rooms?
- Were employees calm and confident?
- Did everyone meet at their assigned meeting spot?
- Was the fire alarm reset and the alarm company notified of the drill? (if applicable)
- Did all employees get the alert from your emergency notification system?
- Did the building facilities (doors, alarms, automated voice commands) work correctly?
Here are some other things to consider as you plan for your fire drill at work:
- Work in various realistic scenarios for future drills such as “this hallway is on fire” or “this door won’t open.”
- As new employees are onboarded, a simple walk-through of their evacuation route could be handled by their new manager.
- Conduct drills at random times to simulate a real-world scenario.
- Companies with extensive chemicals and equipment should ideally conduct fire drills every three months. For most everyone else, twice per year is adequate.
- If a key fire team leader leaves the company, make sure to replace them immediately and then do a leaders-only fire drill walkthrough.
Fire drills are no joke, and your employees will appreciate the thought and planning that went into making your drills efficient and professional. Everyone should be confident that in the event of a fire, all colleagues will have the best chance to safely exit the building.
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