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A how-to guide for fire drills in the workplace

Do employees know what to do and where to go when the fire alarm sounds? If they don’t, and there is a fire on the premises, it may result in delays and errors that could cost lives.

Many people lose their lives and are injured in fires every year.

According to the Fire and Rescue Service 2019/2020 statistics, in England alone, there were:

  • 242 fatalities – 17 of which were in non-domestic premises.
  • 6,935 non-fatal casualties – 880 of which were in non-domestic premises.

The last thing employers want is for employees to become one of these statistics. To ensure this doesn’t happen, all workplaces must have preventive and protective measures and appropriate procedures if a fire does break out. This will include emergency procedures and evacuation plans, which will detail how occupants will be alerted if there is a fire and instructions on how to evacuate the building quickly and safely.

So, the emergency procedures and evacuation plans are complete, but what happens now? For them to be effective, employees will require training and instruction to know what they need to do if there is a fire. A vital part of this training is a fire drill, which puts the emergency procedures into practice to see if they work. If they don’t work, and there is a fire, it can have devastating consequences.

The majority of us have experienced a fire drill at some point in our working lives. How many negative comments are there when the alarm sounds and people make their way out of the building? Fire drills are often perceived as an unnecessary nuisance and disturbance, but they are a vital part of an organisation’s fire safety arrangements. Every individual in the workplace has a part to play in making a fire drill a successful exercise.

This article will look at why fire drills are important. It will also cover how to conduct one and how often they need to be carried out.

Pressing The Fire Alarm To Trigger A Fire Drill

Why fire drills are important

Fire drills are important for several reasons, such as:

  • It is the law – Under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, the responsible person has a legal duty to provide procedures for serious and imminent danger (Article 15). They must support these procedures by providing appropriate training and instruction, which includes fire drills. Carrying out regular fire drills will ensure compliance with fire safety laws.
  • It can save lives – Not knowing what to do or where to go in the event of a fire can cost lives through indecision and delays. Having regular fire drills allows new and existing staff to become familiar with the organisation’s emergency procedures. Knowing what to do in an emergency means that people are less likely to panic and will be able to evacuate more quickly and safely. As the saying goes, “practice makes perfect”.
  • It highlights how effective emergency procedures are – If emergency procedures are ineffective, it can have serious consequences in a real fire. Having regular fire drills allows for emergency procedures to be tested to see if they work and to see if escape routes are effective. If things don’t go according to plan, a fire drill provides an opportunity for learning lessons and revising procedures.
  • It tests warning systems – If occupants cannot hear the fire alarm, it can lead to evacuation delays. There should be a weekly fire alarm test anyway. However, a fire drill provides an opportunity to verify:
    – The alarm is working.
    – Sounders are functioning in all parts of the building (including isolated areas).
    – People can hear the alarm clearly.
    – Any alternative alert systems are working, i.e. vibration devices for people with hearing impairments.
  • It tests PEEPs – Anyone who cannot evacuate the building by themselves must have a Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan (PEEP), e.g. those with disability or mobility issues. It can be more difficult to evacuate others, especially where specialist equipment is required. A fire drill gives those responsible for helping others evacuate the premises an opportunity to put the PEEP into practice.

Everyone should know what their role and responsibilities are in the event of a fire. Practical exercises, such as fire drills, will help occupants remember what they need to do. A fire drill is also essential for those with specific fire safety roles in an emergency, e.g. fire wardens.

Overall, fire drills are important as they make people better prepared if there is a real fire on the premises.

What to do before a fire drill

Before carrying out a fire drill, you should decide on the aims and objectives of the exercise. For example, are you looking at reducing the time it takes for people to evacuate or a specific part of an evacuation plan?

For a fire drill to be successful, you want to meet these aims by being prepared.

This requires certain things to be done before setting off the fire alarm, such as:

  • Ensuring any equipment can be left safely – When planning the fire drill, it is vital to consider any equipment that may have to be left or shut down during the exercise.
  • Deciding who should take part – Ideally, everyone should take part in the fire drill. However, this isn’t always feasible due to particular roles or the nature of the workplace. For example, employees working on safety-critical processes that can’t be stopped wouldn’t be able to participate. You must rotate employees so they can participate at least annually.
  • Nominating observers – A suitable number of observers should be in place around the building to monitor and assess the fire drill exercise. They should have training and instruction on what to observe and record.
  • Informing staff and those with specific roles – Some recommend unannounced fire drills to mimic an actual fire situation and see what occupants would do. Others believe that surprise drills could cause panic and may introduce health and safety risks. Whether you inform all staff of the fire drill will depend on your workplace. If you tell all staff, provide them with relevant details and inform them their participation is required. Those who have a specific role to play must be briefed on the details and told not to use firefighting equipment, such as extinguishers, during a fire drill.
  • Coordinating with others in the building – If the building is multi-occupied with different employers, it is important to coordinate with each other regarding fire drills. Make other people in the building aware of any intended fire drills, as they may want to participate or carry out their own.
  • Informing the alarm monitoring company and/or fire and rescue service – The last thing you want is the fire and rescue service turning up believing it is a real fire. They can charge for false alarms and may do so if they are not informed about a fire drill beforehand. If your fire alarm system is monitored, you must inform the alarm company and/or the fire and rescue service of the planned fire drill.
  • Informing visitors and members of the public – If you expect to have visitors and members of the public on the premises during the fire drill, they must be informed. Otherwise, it could lead to unnecessary panic.
  • Checking for any health and safety risks – Check for any internal or external health and safety risks that could put people at harm during the fire drill, e.g. severe weather forecasts, slip hazards and any obstructions along escape routes.
  • Adopting COVID-19 precautions – The government advice is that fire drills should continue as normal, but employers will need to assess the risks and put precautions in place. Further guidance on COVID-19 precautions and fire drills can be found here.

If there are any issues found when planning the fire drill, i.e. extreme weather conditions, it should be postponed until it can be carried out safely and properly.

Everyone In The Workplace Taking Place In A Fire Drill

How to conduct a fire drill

It is the day of the fire drill. Everything has been prepared, and you are ready to go ahead.

How your organisation conducts its fire drill will depend on the type of workplace, occupants and evacuation strategy.

Here are some general steps to follow when conducting a fire drill:

  • Ask nominated observers to go to their positions
    – Ask those monitoring the fire drill to go to their observation points.
    – Request they take notes of good and bad practices during the fire drill.
  • Ask a member of staff at random to set off the alarm
    – Request they operate the nearest alarm call point using the test key.
    – Check and note whether they know the location of the nearest call point.
  • Time how long it takes for people to evacuate
    – As soon as the alarm sounds, someone should time how long it takes for everyone to evacuate.
    – It is beneficial to use a stopwatch for accuracy, which should be stopped once the evacuation is complete.
  • Observe people’s actions and any difficulties during the drill
    The responsible person and nominated observers should observe the drill and note if they see any of the following:
    – Inappropriate behaviour, e.g. stopping to pick up personal belongings and using lifts.
    – People leaving windows and doors open when exiting.
    – Slow reaction times.
    – Any problems experienced by those with disabilities or mobility issues, e.g. getting them downstairs.
    – Whether people are using their nearest escape route and fire exit rather than the route/exit they normally use.
    – Any difficulties with emergency routes, such as obstructions and opening fire exit doors.
    – Whether those with specific roles, e.g. fire wardens, are carrying out their responsibilities correctly.
  • Carry out a roll call at the assembly (muster point)
    – Carry out a roll call at the assembly point to ensure everyone is out of the building. Note if anyone is missing from the list and find out why.
    – Nominated observers should listen closely and note any communication difficulties regarding the roll call and establishing everyone is there.
    – Where fire wardens use sweeps, they should report to the assembly point. They should verify that their areas were clear and if they had any issues.
    – Allow people to return to the building once the roll call is complete.
  • Notify the fire alarm monitoring centre
    – If the fire alarm is monitored by a receiving centre or the fire and rescue service, inform them the drill is complete.
  • De-brief and feedback
    – After the fire drill, discuss with participants and ask how they thought it went and if they saw any problems. Also, ask them if there is anything that could improve the evacuation.
    – The observations made during the fire drill should be recorded, collated and reviewed.
    – If any remedial actions are required, ensure they are promptly carried out.

Areas to assess

Particular areas should be assessed, during and after a fire drill, such as:

  • Whether the fire alarm can be heard in all parts of the building
    – Check any areas that are isolated during the drill, e.g. toilets, storage areas and cloakrooms.
    – Are any systems for alerting those who are hearing impaired working properly?
  • The time it takes for everyone in the building to evacuate
    – Assess what, if anything, caused delays in evacuation.
    – Can the evacuation time be improved upon, and what action is required?
    – Are any routes quicker?
  • Whether assistance or training is sufficient
    – Assess whether there was enough assistance during the fire drill, i.e. are more fire wardens needed?
    – Did fire wardens know their responsibilities, or do they need further training?
  • Whether Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs) are effective
    – Check that PEEPs work and are effective in evacuating those who have disabilities and impairments.
    – Did any equipment hinder evacuation?
    – Is there any additional equipment or support that would be useful to assist them in evacuating the premises?
  • If there have been any changes to the premises that affected the evacuation
    – Did any temporary or permanent changes to the premises affect the evacuation? For example, construction or maintenance work blocking and changing escape routes and exits.
  • Whether the fire risk assessment needs reviewing
    – The fire drill may highlight additional fire safety hazards and further precautions needed to reduce the risk. If this is the case, the fire risk assessment will need to be reviewed.
Checking And Testing Fire Alarm In Preparation For Fire Drill

How often should a fire drill be conducted?

Frequency of fire drills

There is a legal requirement for all non-domestic premises to carry out a fire drill at least annually, but most organisations tend to have two a year. Ideally, the frequency of fire drills should be determined by the findings of the fire risk assessment.

An organisation may need to carry out more frequent fire drills if:

  • The premises is complex with higher risks, e.g. storing flammable substances or many occupants with PEEPs.
  • They have a high staff turnover or frequently use temporary workers.
  • They have had several new starters.
  • They have staff working different shifts or part time.
  • There have been changes to the premises that affect escape routes.
  • There were various problems during the previous drill.

The number of fire drills needed will also depend on the type of premises and the nature of the organisation. For example, education establishments, such as schools, should have a fire drill every term to account for the turnover of pupils/students.

It is also important to ensure that all employees participate in a fire drill at some point, including shift and part-time workers and those who were unable previously.

Recording the results of fire drills

The results of fire drills should be recorded in a logbook and kept as part of the fire safety and evacuation plan.

A record of the fire drill should include information, such as:

  • The name/role of the person responsible for the fire drill.
  • The call point activated to start the alarm.
  • Date and time carried out.
  • The length of time it took for everyone to evacuate the premises.
  • Any issues encountered during the fire drill, e.g. obstacles, not hearing the alarm and delays in evacuating.
  • Actions taken to resolve the issues.
  • The name/role of the person responsible for any actions and the date completed.

Any significant findings from the fire drill may also need to be fed back into the fire risk assessment.

Review and remedial action

If the emergency procedures or evacuation plans need reviewing in light of the fire drill, changes should be made and brought to employees’ attention. If anything could cause a serious risk to people evacuating quickly and safely, it should be dealt with immediately.

If any changes are significant, it would be wise to carry out another fire drill sooner to see if the amended procedures and plans work effectively.

Summary

Whenever anyone rolls their eyes, groans or tells you they don’t know why they have to be involved in a fire drill, you can now tell them why they are vital. It is the law, and most importantly, it can save lives if there is a real fire.

Imagine having first-aid theory training and never having the practical element. Would you feel confident in treating a casualty? The answer is probably not, and the same can be said for fire drills.

Not putting fire emergency procedures and evacuation plans into practice can result in chaos and catastrophe if there is a real fire. Remember, “practice makes perfect”. Carrying out practical exercises helps people to remember what they need to do. Repetition is also key, and the more frequently people practice, the more familiar it becomes.

It is important to mix it up and make each fire drill different, interactive and as realistic as possible to make them a success. If you have more than one escape route in your building, why not block off different ones each time? You could also introduce mock casualties into the drill. How you conduct your fire drill is up to you, but try and engage people as much as possible.

For more specific information and further guidelines on fire drills in different premises, you can access the fire safety law and guidance documents for business on the UK Government website. You can also learn more about fire safety by taking our Fire Safety Awareness Course.

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About the author

Michelle Putter

Michelle Putter

Michelle graduated with an MSc in wildlife biology and conservation in 2012, but her career has taken quite a different turn to the one expected. She started in health and safety in 2009 and has worked in several industries such as electrical engineering, aviation and manufacturing. She has been working with CPD Online College since 2018 and became NEBOSH Diploma qualified in 2020. In her spare time, Michelle's passions are wildlife and her garden. She has volunteered for many conservation organisations and particularly enjoys biological recording. Michelle also likes hiking, jogging and cycling.



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