Fire drills: Why they need to be in every return-to-office plan

June 18, 2021

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Written By
Anne M. Acosta

Most of us haven’t been thinking about fire drills much when considering going back to the office, but we should want them to be part of the plans. Consider this: employees are returning to offices that they might not have been in for over a year, their seating has changed, some of their locations have changed, and fire safety isn’t as likely to be their #1 priority upon return. And that’s all the more reason why conducting fire drills is more important than ever at this juncture. While there are various ways to establish and manage fire drills, we’d like to share a few hints to help you get started.

While OSHA does not require fire drills, it does strongly recommend them, because they serve a very important learning and teaching tool in workplace fire safety. Equipping employees with fire safety know-how helps them to react more safely during actual emergency requiring evacuation, such as a fire, power outage, chemical spill, attack or a natural disaster.

Some of your executives and co-workers might see fire drills as a nuisance, because they disrupt the day's business and productive working hours. However, conducting fire drills on a regular basis that aligns with your organization’s specific culture, tenure and seasonality is critical for a number of reasons.

How fire drills help

Fire drills can be highly useful in gauging your organization’s readiness to respond to emergency procedures. While not an exhaustive list, the concept of practice makes perfect shows that fire drills can help you to:

  1. Prepare employees and the organization for when a real fire or evacuation happens
  2. Test fire alarms, communication, and other emergency notification systems
  3. Understand how long it takes for people to exit the building
  4. Determine how to account for employees upon exit and reentry
  5. Understand if anyone didn’t follow their evacuation routes or didn’t leave the building
  6. Figure out if everyone knew where to go and if designated employees performed their fire safety roles appropriately
  7. Evaluate where employees had difficulties: in finding fire exits, where traffic built up, did anyone use the elevators instead of stairs, did anyone panic, any disability needs or accommodations that need addressing
  8. Fulfill legal requirements for safety training and compliance

Employees could suffer additional injuries or harm when real-life fires or other disasters happen. This often happens when they take too long to locate exits or follow evacuation routes. Therefore, fire drills can help your organization to reduce panic and make evacuation easier during an actual disaster should one occur. This is indeed the reason why OSHA recommends them for organizational safety. Additionally, you risk the health and safety of your employees when they are inadequately prepared for real emergencies. That could lead to harming your employees, fine, litigation, damage to your company’s reputation and profits.

Before the Drill

So how do you get started? You’ll want to work with your local fire department and prepare an evacuation plan. At a minimum, an evacuation plan should capture all the exit routes from your workplace, and it should define the procedures and determine the experts or volunteers who will help people to safety in the event of an emergency.

You also need to prepare and test your communication systems, ensuring that every employee gets an alerted via the best channels possible from SMS text to email to loudspeakers to phones in an easy-to-understand format and language. The next thing should be training your employees about fire safety and establishing safety teams that will help during drills and actual emergency events like fires, earthquakes and other events.

Communicating the drill in advance is also essential. Set goals for the drill and share them with your employees to help you evaluate the drill. The last step before you conduct a full-fledged fire drill is to rehearse. You’ll need to cross-check the rally points and identify neutral observers for your fire drill.

Preparation is critical when it comes to fire drills. You can quickly improve the effectiveness of a fire drill if you take your time to ensure that everything is ready. Training your employees and conducting a few rehearsals helps people get well-versed in what they should expect during the actual drill.

Types of Fire Drills

There are two main types of fire drills that you can do – announced and surprise drills. Depending on your organization’s readiness and training you can determine which type of drill to conduct at this time and to incorporate into your safety plan.

1. Announced Fire Drills

This type of fire drill is perfect for training employees on workplace safety. It is easier to organize and manage because everyone is aware of what to expect. Besides, announced fire drills are an excellent option because they cause minimal disruption of daily workflow.

But then, it is difficult for you to measure your evacuation readiness from an announced fire drill. As mentioned earlier, an announced fire drill can only be ideal if you are introducing new employees to workplace safety. Informing new employees in advance helps them learn better and enhances safety.

Drills are more successful if employers track who enters the building through identity management, access control systems or biometric recognition capabilities, such as a hand ID.

2. Unannounced Fire Drills

Surprise fire drills are the best, especially if you have trained your employees before. You can more effectively determine your organization and employees' evacuation readiness using this type of fire drill. It is perfect for trained employees because they have an exit plan and will be less susceptible to injuries.

Unannounced fire drills are a true reflection of real-life emergencies. A disaster doesn't alert people when it is almost happening, so a surprise fire drill offers the best preparation. Therefore, it would be best to try it after conducting one or two announced fire drills in your organization.

It is also vital that you let your employees know that it was a surprise drill. Kogniz AssureAI can help you do this effortlessly and ensure everyone gets back to work faster. It indicates when and how they can return to their different points of work.

Evaluate How to Improve

Be sure that you take the time to evaluate how a drill went and to solicit feedback from your coworkers. Compare what transpired during the drill with the results you anticipated.

For instance, you can evaluate whether the emergency alarm and notification systems worked properly and were loud enough. You also need to know if the evacuation routes were clear and whether all employees were able use them simultaneously. You also need to check if everyone followed the procedures as trained before the drill.

Infusing technology that can survey employees on their experiences, easily track who is in the building before a drill, who leaves a building, who was at each of the meetup points and who reentered the building afterward. In this digital age technology can also help you be compliant with OSHA requirements, because you can ensure who is missing, who has been accounted for and be able to evaluate how the drill went based on actual numeric and qualitative data points.

Beyond the Drill

Think about the future after evaluating the drill. Are your evacuation procedures in good shape now, or should you be doing more to improve workplace safety around fire alarms and evacuations? After drills, you can also decide how often you need to do a drill based on how well it went and where improvements are needed.

Talk to an Kogniz expert about what you'd like to see in your future fire drills and seeing how we might be able address your organization’s specific safety prevention plans in the case of a true emergency.

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