Drills Done Right
What you need to do to ensure fire drill training actually works
NFPA Journal, September/October 2010
In my last column, I discussed the need for an emergency plan, of which fire drills are an important part. NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, addresses the need for fire drills—such drills were the primary focus of the original edition of the code, in fact—as well as their requirements, in Section 4.7, which also states that authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) may determine when fire drills are required by appropriate action in their jurisdictions. The code also notes that drills shall be designed in cooperation with local authorities.
Section 4.7.2 notes that drills must be conducted often enough to familiarize occupants with the drill procedures. It also states that drills should include procedures that ensure that everyone subject to the drill participate in it. This is a critical point. If everyone does not participate, we are teaching people that drills are not important. If an elementary school conducts a drill and the principal, teachers, janitors, and cafeteria workers do not participate, we are teaching children that the drills mean nothing. If the principal, CEO, or commanding officer of an organization is an active participant in a drill, you can be assured that the rest of the students or employees will be, too.
Section 4.7.3 discusses the conduct of the drill. The most important feature of a drill is the orderly evacuation of the occupants, not the speed at which they exit. The drill is teaching the occupants what to do in an evacuation or relocation due to an emergency; speed will come when there is motivation, such as a real emergency. That’s why the code does not specify evacuation times for fire drills. Each building will have its own evacuation time determined by three key variables: building configuration and size; the type and condition of the occupants, such as small children in a daycare facility or people with mobility issues in a nursing home; and type of drill conducted — that is, total evacuation, or relocation across a smoke barrier or to another floor. Drills are often timed to keep a record of performance, but not as a measure against a requirement of the code. For example, if a building’s evacuation drills generally take approximately three minutes and one suddenly takes eight minutes, that indicates a problem that should be investigated.
Section 4.7.4 states that drills must be conducted at expected and unexpected times and under varying conditions. Announcing that a fire drill will be conducted on a certain date may be appropriate after the emergency plan has been revised or a new building has been occupied. Announcing the drill and advising occupants to review the emergency plan is part of the training. Conducting drills to simulate actual conditions is also important. If the drill is conducted the same way every time—for example, if the same exit doors are used repeatedly by the same occupants — then participants may not learn where the other exits are or try to use them in an actual emergency. Drills should be conducted at different times during the work shift or school day.
The last item, Section 4.7.6, requires a written record of the drill. This not only documents that the drill was held, but also the conditions, such as weather or level of occupancy, that could affect the drill — information useful for planning future drills.
To think that occupants will quickly and safely evacuate a building without being trained how to do so is simply not a realistic expectation. All of these steps, however, will help condition occupants on what to expect in the event of a fire drill — or in an actual emergency.
Chip Carson, P.E., is president of Carson Associates, Inc., a fire engineering and code consultancy. He is a former member of NFPA's Board of Directors.