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Workplace fire drills

Regular practice keeps workers prepared for emergencies

Photos: Mike Sharkey

If a fire alarm sounded at your workplace, would every employee know what to do? Would they take it seriously? Would your emergency action plan fit the bill – or falter?

All of these questions can be answered through regular fire drills.

“Fire drills are one of the most important things that you can do in safety,” says Butch Browning, executive director of the National Association of State Fire Marshals. “The whole purpose of a fire drill is to facilitate quick and accessible egress out of a building in times of emergencies. It’s a paramount piece of any plan.”

Drills familiarize workers with the steps they’d need to take if a fire broke out. That means they “have to spend less time making the decisions of ‘What am I supposed to do?’” when an actual emergency occurs, says Greg Harrington, principal engineer at the National Fire Protection Association. “That reduces response time.”

And potentially saves lives.

Get prepared for fire drills

Preparation and training for fire drills is where Justin Sassen begins. As the safety manager at Porter Pipe & Supply in Addison, IL, Sassen oversees a nearly 300,000-square-foot facility that has two fire drills a year. One is announced a week in advance and the other goes off unannounced.

“The preparedness is what saves the day,” he said. “You want to make sure everyone knows what to do if that situation ever were to occur. It’s constantly keeping it in the forefront. Everybody has to be on the same page.”

During new-employee onboarding, Sassen shares information and resources on fire safety, including where exits and designated meeting places outside the building are, evacuation maps, and the organization’s emergency policies and procedures.

For veteran employees, Sassen regularly asks them random fire safety-related questions. For example: “Where’s the closest fire extinguisher?” and “If an event happened, what door would you leave out of?”

Sassen relies on members of Porter’s safety committee and key leaders to serve as “sweepers,” tasked with making sure employees exit various portions of the building safely. Sassen and the sweepers use two-way radios to communicate throughout the process.

Harrington encourages safety pros to present different fire scenarios during drills.

“You might do something like put an orange traffic cone in front of one of the exit stair doors and say, ‘This exit is blocked by the fire. You need to go find another egress path.’”

Using the radios and cellphones, Sassen and the sweepers check with frontline managers to get an accurate head count and make sure no one is unaccounted for during a drill.

“It’s a lot of back and forth,” he said.

Associate Editor Barry Bottino discusses this article on the April 2023 episode of Safety+Health's “On the Safe Side” podcast.

Look to standards and guidance

A good resource for safety pros? Browning points to NFPA 101: Life Safety Code – a standard that addresses fires and similar emergencies in both new and existing buildings.

NFPA 101 covers requirements for various types of workplaces and residences to “help eliminate risks in the built environment efficiently and effectively.”

OSHA doesn’t have a specific standard relating to fire drills, but various aspects of fire safety are covered in the Occupational Safety and Health Standards regulation 29 CFR 1910 Subpart E, which includes:

  • Adequate exit routes for evacuation during fires and other emergencies – 1910.34
  • Adequate number of exit routes – 1910.36(b)
  • Exits must discharge into a safe area – 1910.36(c)
  • Exits must be of adequate capacity and width – 1910.36(f) and 1910.36(g)
  • Exits must be clearly lighted and marked – 1910.37(b)
  • An employee alarm system is provided – 1910.37(b) – and complies with 1910.165

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