Workplace Fire Drills--That Work

How to Plan and Hold Workplace Fire Drills Your Employees Will Want to Do — and That Could Save Lives

Fire drills. You know you should have them, you’ve been meaning to plan them, maybe next week.  Or, you’ve tried to have fire drills but your employees are, let’s say, less than enthusiastic. Is there a way to make fire drills easier—and more effective?

Jane Glazer, a board member of Prevention 1st, was inspired by Prevention 1st’s Home Fire Drill initiative to “get serious” about fire drills at her company, QCI Direct. It brought an unexpected pay-off:  During a recent power outage, the windowless 250,000-square-foot warehouse had a total blackout except for emergency exit lights. Because of their fire drill practice, more than 100 people were able to proceed immediately to the exits and evacuate the warehouse without panic or injury.

We asked Jane to tell us how they did it:

How did you go about planning and holding fire drills? 
We put together a safety committee and chose people from different departments to work together. Planning fire exits was part of their job. We decided that we needed several scheduled practice fire drills so everyone knew their ‘buddy’ and where to go, and an alternate route if that exit was blocked. The team leaders were responsible for counting heads when everyone was clear of the building. Our gathering spots outside were a safe distance from the building (We had a gas leak 10 years ago and knew that no one should be merely out of the building, but at a safe distance).

How did you determine whether these drills were successful?
We timed the drills, anyone who took longer than the required time was considered a “casualty,” and we posted the casualties on a big board with the date of the drill. The supervisor in charge of the team leaders carried a stop watch. She checked out all the outside gathering spots and reviewed with the team leaders who arrived late. She knew how many did not hustle in time.

So, what were the results of your first fire drill?
At least 10% “casualties”!

But they improved, right?
Absolutely. Exit times got down to less than 5 minutes for all departments.

How did you motivate workers to respond quickly for a fire drill?
Our warehouse is 75% of our work force so this was a major group to motivate. The warehouse team leader came up with a great incentive: Following a successful (no casualties) fire drill, workers got to listen to their choice of music in the warehouse.

How did you make a ‘routine’ fire drill meaningful?
Once no one was a casualty, we started doing unscheduled drills and testing those. In addition, we had designated people standing at certain exits with big signs “Exit blocked- find another exit”. This enabled us to create more of a crisis situation and force the people to think about what and why they were marching out of the building. When we had the power outage there were areas that were too dark and they did use the alternate exits.

This sounds like a lot of time was spent practicing?
Each drill was only about 15 minutes from start to finish, and we did them about every 2 weeks for about 10 weeks. The staff loved the breaks from work and the challenge of getting out on time and finding alternate routes.

When you had the power outage it was pitch dark. How did that affect the evacuation? 
We still got out within our required time, maybe a bit slower than usual since they could not see except for the light from the exit signs—and cell phones!  The important part was that every employee knew what to do and where to go, and no one panicked. There was also a great sense of pride among the workers that they had accomplished this so well. It shows that not only does practice make for a safe and speedy exit in a real situation, but also that escape practice has many applications beyond fire.

Related articleBeyond Compliance: Fire Drills and Fire Safety Education for people with developmental disabilities and the people who care for them

Fire drills are just as important at home as in the workplace. For help in planning and practicing, go to www.homefiredrill.org.

Share your fire drill story! What worked? What did you learn? Let us know at info AT prevention1st DOT org .