Do We Really Have to?! Why Practicing a Fire Drill Is a Good Thing

The old saying is that practice makes perfect. So, why is it so hard to set up a fire drill practice and get employees to participate? I was planning on publishing this topic in the October blog, but other safety items required my attention at that time. And, since this is an important discussion, I wanted to share this with you before the end of the year (perhaps you will make fire drills a New Year’s Resolution!).

What we have learned:

Our Rochester clinical labs have just finished conducting and documenting their annual fire drills, and this has given me the opportunity to reflect on the importance of actually having our staff walk through the whole process. We have learned from our drills that employees have a better understanding of not only their roles during the activity but also how they are part of the whole team that responds to the event. An individual’s actions certainly can affect others, such as "follow the leader," so it’s critical that everyone knows what they need to be doing, where they need to meet, how to account for everyone, and when it is safe to return to their work areas. By actually going to their assigned meeting locations, staff members are reinforcing that memory because during a real event, they will need to act quickly.

By walking from their labs to their designated meeting locations, staff learn not only the best route to take but learn about potentially alternate routes and where the stairwells and emergency exit doors are located. By working with our own security and facilities groups, we have been able to set up the drills so that employees can experience a very real evacuation scenario because they are allowed to make an emergency phone call to the operators as notification of the fire drill, activate the emergency fire pull stations, and use the emergency exit doors.

By doing drills regularly, employees will remember what they need to do—like building muscle memory—as it re-enforces the behavior.

To announce or not to announce the drill . . . that is an interesting question:

While many prefer doing surprise drills to catch everyone unprepared, my opinion is that scheduling the drill (at least with the lab supervisors) produces a much more desirable result. Because laboratory testing can be complex and time-sensitive, by preannouncing the drill, supervisors and staff can plan the lab activities around the time that they need to be away for the drill, and critical specimens and test results won’t be lost. The lab staff members will have a chance to review their evacuation plans and discuss what they need to do and where to go ahead of time so that during the drill, they will have less anxiety, and the drill will be a learning activity rather than a stressful event that they would remember as a negative experience. When they have finished with the drill, they will have had a positive learning experience where everyone worked together and they knew what to do.

What can you do to set up a fire drill process?

Start with developing a written plan that includes:

  • Designated meeting location(s).
  • Evacuation routes or maps of the building and facilities (including stairwells and emergency exits).
  • Location of emergency equipment (fire pull stations, fire extinguishers, and telephones).
  • Method for making sure that others are notified when there is a fire or others need to evacuate (such as checking other labs/rooms, conference rooms, break rooms, offices, lounges, etc.).
  • Method for taking attendance at the designated meeting location(s).
  • Method for assisting visitors, students, contractors, or employees not familiar with the lab(s).
  • Method for assisting those with disabilities (even temporary ones—such as someone using crutches—or visual and hearing impairments).

Then, get some help from your colleagues to set up the lab’s evacuation plan and to conduct the drill. Pull together a few of employees from your lab to work on the evacuation plan; they will have some great ideas that you may not have thought about, and they will be great advocates for the process if they are part of developing the plan. Decide on the best time to do the drill and how long you think it might take. Make sure that you have planned what the drill will include (such as having all or some employees leave the laboratory and go to their meeting location, if they will be able to use the emergency exit doors or fire pull stations, etc.).

Be sure that you conduct fire drills for all work shifts because you might find that employees on "off shifts" may have a different way of responding during an evacuation (especially if there are fewer employees in the area, and they may have better awareness of where others might be working and areas where employees are not present). Fire drills for other areas are just as important. By combining diverse groups that are located close together (such as the laboratory and the surrounding office area or hospital area), this will help you build a team that works together quickly and efficiently to exit the space.

You may want to have staff from other areas play the roles of a visitor or someone with a disability to give employees a chance to practice with real individuals (we have stationed employees in rest rooms to see if the lab staff can find them and assist them out of the building). You may also want to have a few individuals stationed in key locations to observe employee actions for good/bad behaviors and opportunities for improvement.

At the end of the fire drill, before everyone heads back to their work areas, take a few minutes to discuss the drill with the employees who participated and with the observers. Ask them to identify the things that they thought went well. Then, ask them what they thought could be improved. If they have questions, take a few minutes to discuss them, and if you don’t have answers, let them know you’ll find out and get back to them.

Check with your local fire department to see if they would like to be involved in the fire drill. It’s a great chance to work with them, and they will learn more about your laboratory and organization. You could even include a quick demonstration of how to use fire extinguishers.

Do you need to document the drills?

The saying is, "If you haven’t documented it, it hasn’t been done." The same goes for fire drills. By having a few individuals observe the drill and also having those who participated in the drill write down their observations and experiences, you will have information that can be shared with management to develop plans to improve the fire drill process. A short checklist could be developed that includes the action items that you want your employees to demonstrate during the drill (such as, did they know where emergency equipment and exit doors were located, did they know where to meet and was attendance taken, did they notify anyone of the emergency, etc.). Start with the basic information you want to capture. Then, after the drill, take a look at the checklist and adjust the items as you learn from practice.

After documenting the drill, be sure to identify and implement improvements, and then, before the next drill is conducted, review the findings from before and see if the drill improves. Be sure to communicate the findings from the drill with your management team. They will want to know how the process went, and they can be advocates for employee safety.

If you have some tips on how your area conducts fire drills, let me know because we are always learning from each other. And practice, practice, practice.

Some Interesting Resources:

Pat Hlavka (@pathlavka)

Pat Hlavka

Pat Hlavka is a Safety Coordinator in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN. She received a B.S. degree in Chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an M.S. degree in Safety from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and a member of the American Society of Safety Engineers. Pat worked as a safety professional in the industrial setting (IBM and Benchmark Electronics) for over 15 years. Since joining the Mayo Clinic in 2008, her responsibilities have focused on laboratory safety including the safety audit program, developing and maintaining documentation, training, communications, awareness, incident investigation, laboratory safety committees, and emergency management.