Typically the fire department arrives anywhere from 4 to 10 minutes from the time of the 911 call. It is important to have accounted for all employees, visitors, and contractors.

Fire Drills: Evaluating Employee Exit Strategies

A major issue with conducting pre-announced fire drills is that employees know the drills are not a real emergency alert and therefore, have no sense of urgency.

Research shows employees tend to ignore fire drills since they know there is not a real fire emergency—it's just a test and easy to dismiss.

As a career firefighter as well as a safety consultant to industrial and manufacturing companies, I evaluate emergency action plans, assess fire drill evacuations, and observe employees’ response, and I find that pre-announced fire drills cannot demonstrate a true evaluation of just how well your fire evacuation plan will actually work when there is a real fire emergency. Why? The test's unable to predict employee behavior—most often, employees simply continue to work, visit with fellow co-workers, and at the last minute casually walk out through the door they enter every day, not the emergency exits designated for evacuation.

The goal of an emergency evacuation plan is to ensure all employees and visitors get out of the facility safely and all are accounted for after evacuation. OSHA 1910.38 covers evacuation procedures for all types of emergencies, so I will address three key areas in a fire evacuation plan: assigning exit routes for employees, designating who will remain to shut down critical plant operations and then evacuate, and accounting for employees after evacuation.

Exit Strategies: Add an Element of Surprise
The most common test for a fire evacuation is a "pre-announced" fire drill that is planned, scheduled, and expected. With no element of surprise, employees do not take drills seriously. A major issue with conducting pre-announced fire drills is that employees know the drills are not a real emergency alert and therefore, have no sense of urgency, are able to remain calm, and often do not use the designated emergency exits. This type of drill may put employees in harm's way should they forget to use the designated emergency exits and instead use the main entrances, which may not be the quickest and safest means of egress in a real fire emergency.

Another major issue is that the accountability of employees' procedure usually works perfectly. With announced drills, no one is diverted to an alternate checkpoint, which most often will occur in a real fire emergency. So why is the announced drill used the majority of the time? Typically, because it is the easiest method of test to conduct and fairly easy to plan and schedule.

Based on my experience, an unannounced fire drill is by far a better way to test your plan, but this type of drill requires strategic coordination between your facility, the alarm company, and the local fire department. It requires keeping some employees involved to shut down critical plant operations before they evacuate and who can keep the drill a secret to ensure an element of surprise.

When performing an unannounced drill, there should be exits that are simulated as "blocked." I like to use cardboard, cut into the shape of flames and painted to look like flames. You can also use traffic cones or other fire-simulated obstruction items. Place the cardboard in front of or near exits or egress paths. In a real fire emergency, a certain route out of the building may be blocked due to flames, so blocking exit routes during drills makes for a more realistic test of your plan. But change it up and place the fake flames near different exits or routes each time you perform an unannounced drill: Keep it "unexpected." This should go without saying, but be sure you do not actually physically block exits by locking them or putting up real barriers, because exits need to be available for use at all times, even during drills.

If you can't conduct an unannounced drill, use the fake flames or other simulated obstruction to add an element of surprise to your announced fire drill, and then watch how employees react and what they do. This simulated fire block will serve better than an announced drill with no element of surprise. I also recommend having your local fire department assist you with conducting the unannounced drill or engaging a certified third party contractor to assist. By having them stationed at strategic locations during the drill, they can monitor the evacuation to identify issues and make recommendations on how to improve.

Safeguarding Employees Who Remain to Shut Down Critical Operations
In some instances it is preferred that certain plant operations are shut down prior to evacuating. Important points to remember for this are that employees need to know that if they cannot perform the shut down operations safely, then they should evacuate and never put themselves in danger. I personally do not condone the idea of employees remaining to operate or shut down critical plant operations before evacuating in a real fire emergency. These employees will need extra training to make sure they understand when it is safe to stay and when it is not and when it is time to get out safely.

Accounting for All Employees After Evacuation
Any drill using simulation of blocked exits/routes encourages employees to find a different exit by making them re-evaluate and determine the next-closest and safest exit route. This can force them to a different rally point. This diversion may lead them to not being on the accountability list—they will have taken a different evacuation route than they learned in previous drills. This also will assist in identifying strengths and weaknesses in your procedures for accountability of employees.

From a firefighter's perspective, when the fire department arrives on site and they told that not everyone is accounted for, they enter a burning structure searching for employee(s) instead of extinguishing the fire. This practice puts the fire crew at an increased risk, only to find out later that everyone did make it out and it was an error in the accountability of employees.

Lessons Learned
After testing your evacuation plan, it's good practice to identify and discuss the lessons learned. Here are a few from my experiences:

1. People are creatures of habit: In many fire drills, workers will use the main route of entry/egress they use when arriving or leaving work, instead of using emergency exits. I have used the cardboard flames cutout and, while I know it is not real fire, I have seen employees walk right by the fake flames to use the entrance/exit they use every day instead of the emergency exit near their work area. Employees tend to forget about the designated emergency exits, so it is important that they use them during fire drills.

2. Critical equipment shutdown plans can put these employees at a higher risk: In many facilities there is equipment that ideally needs to be shut down before everyone evacuates. Having these plans in place is important, but these employees also need to be trained not to put themselves at risk to shut down machinery. If deemed too dangerous, they need to know not to put their own lives at risk by staying and evacuate immediately.

3. Accountability of workers: Accounting for everyone is one of the more difficult tasks, typically, due to a multitude of issues:
a) Not signing in and signing out.
b) Piggybacking on scan cards. (I scan in but hold the door open for you, and you don't scan in.)
c) Consistent tracking of visitors and contractors.

Typically the fire department arrives anywhere from 4 to 10 minutes from the time of the 911 call. It is important to have accounted for all employees, visitors, and contractors. This might have to be coordinated from multiple exterior rally points, and the target should be to have this completed with confidence that it is 100 percent correct by the time the fire department arrives.

4. Get assistance to help observe, evaluate, and assess your evacuation procedures: Contact your local fire department and ask them whether they can come out to your facility to observe your fire evacuation procedures and provide any recommendations. For larger facilities, consider hiring a third party that understands fire safety to assist with setting up fire drills and evaluating the drills and even writing or revising your company's plan, if you do not have the time to commit to it.

5. The fire evacuation plan is a fluid document that should be revisited and adjusted as needed: Many times plans are never updated after plant expansions or remodeling. Additionally, some still have employees assigned to assist with the evacuations or accountability in the written plan who are no longer working at the facility. Subsequently, no one has been assigned or trained to take their place! Remember that an employer must review the plan with employees when the plan is developed or changed, when an employee is initially hired, and when the employee’s responsibility in the plan changes.

When testing your evacuation procedures, it's important to focus on fire drills and exit strategies that can change human behavior and ultimately improve employee response. If you implement "surprise" and unexpected challenges forcing employees to rethink their exit strategies during your fire drills, employees will be better prepared and know how to respond when there is a real fire evacuation.

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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