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Workplace fire drills

Regular practice keeps workers prepared for emergencies

Photos: Mike Sharkey

Partner with the fire department

No matter your industry, connecting with local emergency responders is a must. “That partnership needs to be the first thing you do before you start creating safety plans and teaching safety classes,” Browning said. “When all the safety measures fail and you have to call 911, having a preplanned relationship with those folks is important.”

Harrington, who began his career in fire services, recommends notifying your local fire department of upcoming drills and inviting representatives to observe. This will allow them to better understand the layout of the building, evacuation points and assembly areas for workers, as well as get to know key safety leaders onsite.

“The benefit is you’re much better off if you have an actual emergency when the fire department is responding,” Harrington said. “They’ve been there. They know what the building looks like. They’ll know where to tie into the sprinkler system, if the building has a sprinkler system. They’ll know right where the fire hydrants are on the property or on the street, and that will make their response much more efficient.”

Review and share

For safety pros, a post-drill review – via email, electronic survey or in person – can bring to light what went well and where improvement is needed.

“There’s a lot of things that can be learned,” Sassen said. “Even in preplanned events, nothing ever goes 100%.”

Sassen shares his observations, along with those of the sweepers and a fire inspector who attends the events, with all employees via email after every drill. One thing he doesn’t do, however, is criticize individuals. “That’s a coaching/counseling moment.”

For example, he might explain that a forklift driver needs to lower a load before exiting the building. Workers also might have questions about containing chemicals they’re working with before exiting or turning off machinery.

Various sizes and types of workplaces will have expected evacuation times that vary, so focusing strictly on time isn’t enough.

“It’s about an orderly drill,” said Browning, who added that the first priority of any post-drill is asking employees for their observations and thoughts. “You’ve got employees who might be working on cranes or forklifts. They may not have heard the alarm. You’ve got to drill down to those folks much different than the 40 people working in office cubicles with no noise and no distractions.”

For any employees who treat drills lightly or consider them a nuisance, Sassen said he reinforces how training can benefit them and others.

“We do it for you to understand,” Sassen said. “In a true event, I guarantee if you didn’t have this training, you would be a deer in the headlights. I know I would be.”

To Harrington, having a culture of safety that starts with high-level leadership is a must for the success of fire drills and other emergency action plans.

“If the CEO or the president of the company is not bought into it, or if they think, ‘I don’t have to take part in a fire drill,’ then why should anybody else take it seriously?”

4 tips for a successful fire drill

1. Choose where to meet
Landmarks serve as good designated meetup spots after workers exit a building, says Justin Sassen, safety manager at Porter Pipe & Supply. At the company’s facility in Addison, IL, those spots are an onsite pond, a large planter box near the entrance to the property and two parking lots. “Using the landmarks is like stapling an image in your brain.”

2. Manage the crowd
Whether they’re called sweepers, crowd managers or floor captains, having workers with a higher level of training is a must during drills at larger manufacturing or warehouse facilities. “It’s a pretty good program to have,” said Butch Browning, executive director of the National Association of State Fire Marshals.

3. Safety, with a nudge
If CEOs and company leaders don’t see the need for fire drills, Greg Harrington, principal engineer at the National Fire Protection Association, suggests involving an organization’s loss prevention team to explain that the company is “exposed to significant liability if somebody gets hurt in a fire in our facility” and fire drills haven’t been taking place.

4. Helping employees with disabilities
Sassen designates three different people – in case someone is on vacation – to be in charge of helping any colleague with a disability exit the building. “Having dedicated people helps. It can’t just be one person.”

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