Workplace Fire Drills – That Work

fire-exit-escape-signHow 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, maybe, your only fire “drill” was an unannounced exit when the alarm sounded. How did that go? How quickly did everyone exit? Did everyone exit?

Exit planning and drills can save lives at work as well as at home. A practiced exit plan can also have other benefits beyond fire. During a power outage at QCI Direct, the company started by Prevention 1st founding board member Jane Glazer, the windowless 250,000-square-foot warehouse had a total blackout except for emergency exit lights. Because of the company’s fire drill practice, more than 100 people were able to proceed immediately to the exits and evacuate the warehouse without panic or injury.

How did they do it? Both planning and practice went into those good results.  The company put together a safety committee and chose people from different departments to work together, giving them authority and responsibility for planning fire exits and holding drills. They held several scheduled practice drills so that all workers knew their ‘buddy’ and where to go, and an alternate route if that exit was blocked. Team leaders were responsible for counting heads when everyone was clear of the building. Gathering spots outside were a safe distance from the building.

They timed the drills, in which anyone who took longer than the required time was considered a “casualty,” and 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 all the outside gathering spots and reviewed with the team leaders who arrived late. She knew how many did not hustle in time.

How did they do on their first fire drill?  At least 10% “casualties”! But they improved with practice.  Exit times got down to less than 5 minutes for all departments.

Motivating workers to respond quickly is one of the biggest challenges for any workplace fire drill. At QCI,  warehouse workers made up 75% of the 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. Each drill took only about 15 minutes from start to finish, and was done about every 2 weeks for 10 weeks. The staff loved the breaks from work and the challenge of getting out on time and finding alternate routes.

While practice can make perfect, it can also make fire drills seem ‘routine.’ Keeping the drills meaningful was the next challenge. Once no one was a casualty, QCI started doing unscheduled drills. In addition, people were designated to stand at certain exits with big signs: “Exit blocked- find another exit.” This forced workers to think about what they were doing and why they were marching out of the building. That training came into use during the power outage when some areas were too dark and the workers had to use their alternate exits. Everyone still got out within their required time, using the light from the exit signs—and cell phones. 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 showed 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

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