Emergency Preparedness and Response

Do Your Fire Drills Resemble Reality?

What did your last fire drill look and sound like? Was it a calm and quickly executed affair: The fire alarm sounded and everybody calmly walked out through their nearest exit and went to the assembly point? Congratulations: Your workers know how to get out of the building when there’s not actually a fire. During a real fire situation, though, they might not do so well. Here’s some advice you can use to help workers prepare for a real fire.

In a real fire situation, workers may have to deal with issues that they simply won’t encounter during a drill. You may or may not be able to simulate these in a drill situation, but you should certainly tell employees about these potentially deadly complications.

Workers escaping a real-life fire situation may encounter:

Power failure. Depending on what causes the fire, where it strikes, and how quickly it moves, it may cut power to the building. Lighting and automatic doors may fail as a result. The building should be equipped with emergency lighting, and emergency exit signs should remain lit, but can your workers navigate the building under those circumstances—especially if the emergency lights are obscured by smoke? They need to be able to get out of the building in the dark.


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Accumulating smoke. Smoke will accumulate in the building as the fire spreads; generally, it will be thickest near the ceiling. In addition to being toxic and obscuring visibility and emergency lighting, this smoke reduces the oxygen content in the air and increases the carbon monoxide content—both factors that can contribute to employee confusion and disorientation.

To get below the smoke and find cleaner breathing air, workers may need to drop to their hands and knees. So, in addition to finding their way out of the workplace in the dark, they may have to find their way out at a crawl. The workplace looks very different from the floor; will your workers get lost? Train them to use landmarks and guides located on or near the floor to find their way to the exit.


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Blocked exit routes. Blocked exits have killed many workers who would have otherwise survived a workplace fire. Make sure that exits and exit routes are kept clear by:

  • Not locking exit doors. This may seem obvious, but employers and employees sometimes find themselves at odds: Workers will prop doors open for airflow (or worse, to enable theft). Employers, trying to solve the security or loss problem that is created, may chain doors shut. Then, when there is a fire, workers cannot escape. Find other loss control or security solutions besides disabling emergency exits.
  • Keeping egress routes clear. Many employers have been cited, particularly in warehouses, for permitting the accumulation of stored items along egress routes. This is a double hazard, enabling fire to encroach on exit routes and potentially blocking workers’ access to the exit. Make sure that egress routes and exit doors are not blocked by improper storage.

Another blocked-egress situation can arise when the fire itself rearranges the workplace. If, for example, the fire began with an explosion in the workplace, egress routes and exits may be physically inaccessible due to debris and structural damage. This is one reason workers need to have and know at least two exit routes from their work area. They also need to be able to navigate the workplace well enough to find an alternate exit route from the point where their egress is blocked, if possible, without going all the way back to their starting point.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at two more problems workers may encounter in a real fire situation that you should prepare them for.