How to Conduct a Fire Drill at Work: A Step-by-Step Guide
This guide will help you and your business improve fire safety by outlining a process for how to conduct a fire drill at work.
We like to think of our workplaces as predictable outposts full of copiers, Keurig machines, and maybe a few too many meetings. No one expects to have a fire or other disaster at work. But the truth is that when a fire breaks out, employees’ lives can be on the line.
Every day in office buildings across the country, employees hear the alarm and must evacuate, or risk the dangers of a burning building. You and your company’s leaders need to know how to conduct a fire drill at work in order to prepare your employees to stay safe in the event of a fire. By scheduling regular fire drills and training your team to act quickly and safely, your company can plan for an organized emergency response and a better chance of preventing injury or loss of life.
In this post, we’ll cover how your company can plan for a potential fire emergency, important considerations for your emergency procedures, and how to prepare employees to exit the building safely in the event of a workplace fire.
A fire drill is a simulation of evacuation that helps prepare participants for an emergency situation. Running drills lets people know what to expect and how to respond safely.
Warning signals may include announcements, a fire alarm, and strobes. In response, everyone will evacuate the building according to the fire evacuation plan that has been previously communicated.
Announcing a drill ahead of time can prevent panic and undue fear so people can practice fire drill procedures with awareness and cooperation.
Why Fire Drills at Work Are Important
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that local fire departments responded to 1,291,500 fires in 2019 (that’s one fire every 24 seconds). These fires caused roughly 3,700 civilian deaths, 16,600 civilian injuries, and $14.8 billion in property damage. Armed with stats like this, your company would be wise to plan regular fire drills. In fact, many landlords and office management companies require that organizations have emergency plans and conduct fire drills in their leases.
However, fire drills are not only to prepare for fires. They train employees on a number of potentially life-saving skills, including:
- How to leave the office quickly in case of any emergency or life safety situation
- How to engage Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) when there’s a potential hazard
- How to locate escape routes and where to go after vacating the premises
- What to expect once emergency responders arrive
Drills save lives
One of the most gripping accounts 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 emergency 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 or other emergency, too. Rescorla’s foresight and leadership saved lives.
Repetition is key
Ask any school-age child about fire drills, and they will probably mention doing a mock emergency evacuation within the last few months. Schools repeat fire drills often so that routine becomes a habit and kids know what to do without really thinking about it. It’s good to remember the “Seven P’s:”
Fire drills are a great example of why emergency preparedness professionals typically “hope for the best; prepare for the worst.” There may be a low chance of a real fire in your facility, but it’s still important to have critical information like fire exits, extinguishers, and emergency supplies memorized, so that if complications arise, your team knows how to respond. It’s possible evacuation routes are partially blocked or doors are jammed and you will need alternative routes. Other building occupants may inadvertently impact your plans in an effort to vacate their offices at the same time. Regular fire drills will reveal these issues.
Develop a Detailed Fire Evacuation Plan
Before sending building occupants scurrying for the exits at the sound of a fire alarm system, 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?
- What is the fire code or maximum occupancy limit for your building (and is your office violating it)?
- Establish roles and responsibilities for the fire evacuation team, including that of fire warden
- Develop comprehensive fire drill procedures
- Create a communication plan (using a redundant, multi-channel, two-way mass communication system such as AlertMedia makes this easy)
- Plan and map evacuation routes, emergency exits, and evacuation procedures
- Know your tools such as smoke 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
Fire Drill Procedures
Step #1: 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 heading to the nearest pull station and pulling the alarm. Everyone needs to be on board when you conduct a fire drill at work.
- First, you must ensure the entire fire team (from the warden on down) is trained on the evacuation procedures and ready to make the drill a success.
- Second, you need executive buy-in since the drill will take people away from the factory line, their desks, and the warehouse.
- Third, and perhaps most importantly, all employees need to understand the importance of the fire drill; otherwise, they won’t take it (or you) seriously.
Step #2: Communicate your plan
The key to a successful fire drill at work is communication. Announce the drill in every place employees will see it, including platforms such as an employee portal, intranet, 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 drill on the company Outlook or Google calendar. Include information about the fire team and their roles, orderly evacuation routes, and expectations for procedure and behavior.
Step #3: Set goals
Your fire safety 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 from drill activation to evacuation
- Time to report completion of the drill
- Successful shutdown of equipment (where appropriate)
Step #4: Rehearse the procedure
Conduct rehearsals of increasing complexity. For example, your fire safety leaders could first rehearse “on paper” with a tabletop exercise where they describe the evacuation plan to the fire warden. The team should describe their actions during a fire drill and analyze any perceived weaknesses or confusion. After the fire safety 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 safety leaders should design more intricate scenarios. Change up variables within the drill to train employees on how to react when complications arise. For example, by adding obstacles such as closed stairwells, broken elevators, and blocked exits, you can simulate a more realistic environment.
The assembly 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 assembly point. The designated area should be a familiar and agreed-upon location that is strategically placed outside the building. For large companies, multiple assembly areas allow 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 their assembly area. For those who may have lost their cell phones while evacuating, fire team leaders should also use 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 fire department as well as the entire fire team.
Step #5: Observe and reflect
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. Task them 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 or mobility impairments such as hard-to-open doors or slippery stairwells
- Employees who choose a different route rather than the nearest exit to their workstation
After the drill, the observers should conduct a debriefing or put together an after action report to go 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, alarm activation, automated voice commands) work correctly?
Other Considerations to Improve Fire Safety
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, their new manager could handle a simple walk-through of their evacuation route.
- Conduct drills at random times to simulate a real-world scenario and improve overall preparedness.
- Companies with extensive chemicals and equipment should ideally conduct drills every three months. For most everyone else, twice per year is adequate.
- If a key fire safety leader leaves the company, make sure to replace them immediately and then do a leaders-only walkthrough of the fire drill procedures.
Fire evacuations are serious situations to prepare for. And with the health and safety of your team at stake, getting it right by thorough planning is critical. As long as you are clear with your employees about what is expected of them and how it will benefit them, everyone will appreciate the effort to make your drills efficient and professional. And everyone will be confident about how to exit the building safely in the event of a fire.