A Guide To Fire Drills: The Do’s and Don’ts

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Fire drills are an essential part of keeping people safe from fires, as they provide a chance for people to know what to do when a fire starts at work or school. There are still over 3,000 fires a year in the workplace in the United States alone. That means it’s vital to know what to do when it comes to conducting a fire drill.

Our guide to fire drills examines what a fire drill is, why we need fire drills, what to do and what not to do during a fire drill, how long a fire drill should take and how often fire drills need to be conducted, and finally, we look at a demonstration of the effectiveness of fire drills and prove that they save lives.

We will also include a checklist that you can use when planning and conducted your fire drills, to make sure nothing is missed and it goes smoothly.

Your # 1 priority is keeping your family safe. As a firefighter, I recommend everyone has updated smoke detectors that don’t require battery changes, like these ones from Kidde, a fire extinguisher, like this one from Amerex, and a fire escape ladder if you have bedrooms above the first floor, I recommend this one from Hausse.

Also read: How to Put Out a Fire on Someone’s Clothes: A Guide

What To Do Before A Fire Drill

There are actions each individual should take to prepare themselves for a drill effectively:

  1. They should know the building’s evacuation plan
  2. They should understand the evacuation protocol in the event an alarm rings
  3. They should know at least two ways out of the building that they are in
  4. They should know where the rally/meeting point they should head to is
  5. They should, if possible, have some basic training in the use of fire extinguishers
  6. They should know where alarm points are to use in case they discover an actual fire

In general, companies and business should facilitate the learning required for their staff to be able to carry out such duties in a safe and effective manner.

Much of this is typically addressed during the company’s onboarding process or through specific fire safety training. You cannot expect people to be aware of these things by themselves. 

Most important of all, all information regarding evacuation plans, individual responsibilities, etc. must be freely accessible to everyone in the building. An evacuation plan is of absolutely no value if it is treated as a state secret until the moment that it is put into action.

You cannot expect people to psychically understand the demands of such a situation – they have to be properly prepared for it and failing to do so can cost lives. 

What To Do During A Fire Drill

emergency exit and fire alarm

The role of each individual during a fire drill is to carry out the evacuation procedure in a safe and sensible manner which reflects the conditions of a real fire. 

Here are 15 things they should do:

  1. You must stay calm and, ideally, quiet so that you can hear instructions.
  2. You must treat the fire drill as though there was a real fire
  3. You must stop doing what you’re doing
  4. If you are a nominated individual with specific responsibilities in a fire – you should attend to those
  5. If you are not a nominated individual you should move, in an orderly fashion, out of the building (don’t stop to take things with you) 
  6. You must use the nearest fire exit to leave – lookout for signs if you’re not familiar with the area you are in
  7. You must close the door behind you (this stops the flow of oxygen through the building)
  8. You must leave the lights on – this helps firefighters to see and assess the situation
  9. You must check a door handle for heat before opening it – in a real fire, opening a room which is on fire is a good way to spread the fire around
  10. You must check for smoke coming under a door before opening it – again this is a sign that you’d be moving towards the fire and not away from it
  11. You must always use stairs (not elevators) – stairways are often pressurized which keeps them free of smoke and fire
  12. You should keep an eye out for smoke signs – in a drill, there will be no actual smoke, it can be replaced, however, with a sign that says “smoke” – you should treat this like actual smoke, use another route or if you can only get out via the smoke-filled area – crawl on the floor
  13. You must head directly to the meeting point for a headcount once you leave the building
  14. You must listen to any directions given by senior members of staff or nominated fire personnel
  15. You must not re-enter the building without being given the all-clear to do so

What Not To Do During A Fire Drill

There are also 8 things that you should not do during a fire drill:

  1. You must not panic and the same is true when a real fire comes through
  2. You must not treat it as a joke – a fire drill is designed to prepare you for a real fire
  3. You must not use an elevator – in a real fire this could get you killed
  4. You must not run – not only might this induce panic in others but it makes it much more likely that you will hit something/someone and have an accident which slows you down, you need to walk calmly and briskly, instead
  5. You must not lock any closed doors – otherwise, you make life more difficult for firefighters when they respond
  6. You must not open a door that has a hot door handle – you need to choose another route if this is the case
  7. You must not open a door if there is smoke billowing out – you need to choose another route if this is the case
  8. You must not congregate on sidewalks outside of the building – this interferes with the fire department’s ability to get access to the building

How Long Should A Fire Drill Take?

fire alarm pull station

There is no precise measurement for how long a fire drill should take. It will depend on the volumes of people involved, the size and layout of the building, etc. There may also be a delay period, depending on the alarm system in place, for the alarm to fully reset before the building may be safely re-occupied.

However, in most cases, a fire drill should not take more than about 5-15 minutes. Somebody responsible for fire safety will monitor the overall response time and give feedback on what could have been done better and how that time can be reduced in the future. 

It is not unusual for some fire drills to take much longer than needed because they aren’t being taken seriously by the staff. Unfortunately, this only indicates a need for further regular drills, in the long run they’re not helping themselves or their colleagues. 

How Often Should Fire Drills Be Conducted?

It’s worth remembering that if you want people to learn anything – they need to do it and repeat it on a regular basis. This is how kids learn to do things at school and our learning process doesn’t change as adults. For fire drills to be effective – you have to repeat them regularly. 

Yes, we know that this can feel like a drag but hoping for the best and preparing for the worst is a much better long-term strategy than “pretending a fire could never happen here” because it always can. 

So, how often should fire drills be conducted? 

It depends on the working environment, to some, extent. If you work in an environment in which there are serious fire risks present most or all of the time – it is appropriate to conduct very regular drills. A minimum of one every 3 months but if the response times are lacking – it might be necessary to do them more often until everyone responds as they should.

In some areas, certain buildings will need even more frequent fire drills than this. High rise buildings may require fire drills every two months, daycares and treatment centers may require them every month.

By contrast, in lower-risk areas, it’s OK to carry out fire drills on a less regular basis. Every workplace, including every department, building, area, etc. should conduct a minimum of one fire drill a year and if response times are not good – this should, again, become more regular until everyone responds effectively.

The Law and Fire Drills

The regulations on the legal minimum of fire drills each year vary by state in the United States and it is important that you check the requirements of your state legislative body to ensure you are in compliance with them. 

Fires are becoming less common in the current century and that’s a good thing, but they have not been eliminated and lives depend on people responding to a fire in an efficient manner that enables everyone to get out quickly and safely. 

How To Make Fire Drills Work

If you want your fire drills in your business to be effective then you have to prepare for them and ensure that your whole team is aligned with these plans. 

Have An Evacuation Plan

You will need to create a reasonably detailed but still readable and accessible fire evacuation plan for your business or school. This must be a written plan because it needs to be available to everyone in the building to ensure that they know what they’re doing.

We’re not going to teach you to write an evacuation plan here because that’s a whole other article, but it should include:

  1. The roles and responsibilities of the fire evacuation team
  2. The details of the people carrying out those roles and responsibilities
  3. A complete communication plan for the fire evacuation plan
  4. A complete communication plan for the actual evacuation (many businesses will choose 2-way radios for this)
  5. The exit points, exit routes and the meeting/rally points on maps
  6. A list of all fire fighting tools in the business and their locations
  7. A list of all fire-related tools (alarm points, detectors, etc.) and their locations
  8. A schedule for fire drills to take place
  9. A plan for follow up and reporting for the time after the drill has taken place

The plan needs to contain enough detail so that it can be carried out effectively but needs to stay short enough that it can be read and used in an emergency – a 200 page binder may be your natural planning state as a business but it’s overkill for an evacuation plan and it will make the job more difficult than it needs to be.

Make Sure Everyone Understands The Point

It’s quite amazing how many businesses make plans and then never share those plans with their staff. You can’t treat an evacuation plan like it’s a secret, it’s only useful to you when everyone in the business understands what’s expected of them and they can’t learn that when the building is on fire.

So, you need to inform, train and brief your in house fire response team first. They need all the information and resources available to them that allows them to carry out their duties when the drill begins. 

You need to get the executive team to buy in and to lead by example when the drill starts. No-one will take a fire drill seriously if the executives stay in their offices laughing and eating donuts while it takes place. In a real fire, executives will burn just the same as anybody else. 

Finally, you need to ensure that every single employee and contractor understands the purpose of fire drills and what they are required to do when things go wrong. 

This is the only way to ensure that everyone is on board and prepared to cooperate when push comes to shove. 

Communicate The First Fire Drill Plan

fire drill plan

When you have a plan to run the first fire drill, let everyone know. While you may want to test people’s responses to drills at a later date when they don’t know it’s a drill, for the first time out – shout the plans from the rooftops.

This allows people to prepare properly and gets the message of, “this is a real thing, it’s not something that we’re doing for the sake of talking about it”. 

Use the Intranet, e-mail, staff meetings, Slack, etc. whatever communication channels that you have in the business to keep people informed on the date and make sure that when possible – you’re providing useful information in these communiques. Attach maps, the plan, etc. whatever you think people will need. 

Have Goals For Your Fire Drill

A fire drill needs to have certain objectives to be useful. Now, when you run the first fire drill – you will find that you’ll include some objectives that don’t work. That’s OK. Objectives are not set in stone forever – you can change them based on your understanding of data once you’ve run a drill.

However, if you don’t have any objectives at all – how can anyone take the drill seriously? It’s an exercise for the sake of the exercise. So, it can help to at least set a target of measuring responses and specific activities. 

Then you can use that data to inform your process moving forward. At a minimum you might want to set objectives of:

  1. Measuring how long it takes for everyone to evacuate – including any visitors present at the time
  2. Measuring how long it takes to report that the drill is over
  3. Checking to see if any individual processes were followed (money was secured, equipment switched off, etc.)

Rehearse Your Drill

Before you do the drill in real life and rehearse it with the whole business – you should rehearse it on paper, first. 

Get people to walk through what they’re expected to do and when. Discuss any points of confusion or potential failure.

Then do a bigger rehearsal involving some regular employees too before you finally get to a full fire drill.

Once everyone has mastered a fire drill and evacuation – it can help to come up with more complex scenarios involving other hazards (smoke, fire in rooms, blocked stairwells, etc.) that test people’s ability to adapt when there is a real fire.

Have The Drill Observed

It can really help to bring in some outside observers to watch people during a drill. They can spot any potential general problems (such as groups stopping to have a chat or collecting possessions), or specific problems (fire exits are not wheelchair friendly). 

They can also help to conduct a final review with the team – where you can ask them questions and really drill down into outcomes and behaviors throughout the drill. 

Fire Drill Checklist

We’d strongly recommend that you develop your own in-house fire drill checklist which reflects your fire evacuation plan. However, we’ve built a basic example checklist that you’re welcome to use to start your planning process on this. 

Try to keep the checklist as simple as possible without leaving anything vital out. You don’t want a checklist that takes the team hours to complete after the event because it won’t get done and that means you won’t learn any lessons from the drill. 

Communication Protocols
You could hear the fire alarm clearly in all areas of the premisesYes/No
You could hear the public address system clearly in all areas of the premisesYes/No
The Fire Department was informed of the drill Yes/No
Your security group was informed of the drillYes/No
Fire Containment Protocols
Every door was closed but not kept lockedYes/No
A fire extinguisher was moved to the location of the fireYes/No
Evacuation ProtocolsYes/No
All the fire team members reported to the right stationsYes/No
All the fire team members carried out their duties as per the planYes/No
All elevators were brought to the appropriate floor and disabled thereYes/No
The corridors and fire exits were inspected and found to be clear of obstructionYes/No
The evacuation was conducted in an orderly fashionYes/No
Any visitors present were included in the drill responseYes/No
A proper status report was delivered following relocationYes/No
Utility Management Protocols
All electrical appliances were switched offYes/No
The lights were left onYes/No
The ventilation system was switched offYes/No
Record/Valuable Protocols
All cash and important documents were properly securedYes/No

Here is a quick reference guide that can also be helpful for planning and conducting your fire drills.

What Is A Fire Drill?

A fire drill is an essential component of any fire safety program. It is a way to practice the response of individuals within an organization (and often in other responding organizations too) to ensure that in the event of a fire, the best possible safe outcome occurs.

It will begin with the activation of a fire alarm and while you may sometimes be informed in advance that this is a drill, the expectation is that everyone in the building will treat this alarm as a genuine emergency and follow the protocols that have been laid down by the fire safety team.

The Fire Drill Protocols Can Vary

The exact protocols used will vary based on building types, the equipment or chemicals kept on site, the location of fire exits, etc. So, it is important that each and every individual is briefed on the appropriate procedures on site.

Even visitors to your site should be given some basic information regarding fire safety such as the location of emergency exits, etc. 

There Will Be A Full Evacuation During A Fire Drill

evacuation sign

There is an expectation during a fire drill that a full evacuation of the building will take place and that this evacuation procedure will be timed. The purpose of timing the evacuation is to evaluate the overall effectiveness of the drill.

Fire drills are meant to ensure that everyone leaves the building immediately as soon as it is safe to do so, but often, when they are first introduced, people either do not take them seriously or haven’t been given appropriate guidance on how to behave.

When you know that a fire drill is not fully effective – you have time to ensure people do take it seriously and get the training they need to act appropriately, before a real fire comes along and it becomes a matter of life and death. 

A Fire Drill Is Not A Fire Alarm Test

In addition to fire drills, however, most businesses will also conduct testing of their fire alarm systems which may result in activation of the alarm – they will normally do these tests outside of their core hours and notify any remaining staff that this is not a fire or a fire drill. 

How Did Fire Drills Come About?

A fire drill is designed to ensure you can get out of a burning building safely, that you know how to deal with fire, smoke, etc. and that you know what the fire alarm sounds like. 

Surprisingly, the fire drill is also a relatively recent invention. It was conceived in response to a disaster at the Our Lady of Angels School, Chicago, Illinois in 1958. 

A group of children and their teachers became trapped on the 2nd floor of their building and in their panic and fear they jumped from the windows. As you might expect this resulted in many deaths among the children. 

Despite this, only 2 months prior to the fire – the school had passed their fire inspection with flying colors. That’s because they’d only been measured on fire exits and fire extinguishers – nobody had checked the fire alarms, the lack of smoke detectors, the overcrowding, or that they had an evacuation plan.

The fire drill was born in response to this tragedy. It helped people learn about fires, what caused them, how they could prevent them, and what to do when things went very wrong. 

This was an incredibly positive development for America’s school system. The events at Our Lady of Angels triggered a systemic chance that ensured within months, the conditions which arose there could not arise again at another American school. 

Do We Still Need Fire Drills?

Yes. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) there are on average more than 3,000 fires a year in American workplaces. That means while the odds of your workplace catching on fire are pretty low (thank goodness) they are not zero. 

In many cases, not only is an employer legally obligated to carry out fire drills, but their insurer, their office management firm, and their landlord may expect it too as part of their contractual obligations to the firm. 

The Efficacy Of Fire Drills

Rick Rescorla was Morgan Stanley’s security chief. He was one of the people who survived a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center back in 1993 and he became convinced that proper planning and regular fire drills would save lives.

When the horrific events of 9-11 unfolded, Rick Rescorla led all 2,700 Morgan Stanley employees safely out of the building. Fire drills save lives. 


So, there you have it, a guide to fire drills: the dos and don’ts. We hope that you never need to deal with fire but, at the same time, we hope that everyone in the country knows what to do if it does happen. 

A fire drill isn’t a huge burden on your workday – it’s a way to ensure that you and your colleagues, friends, etc. can stay safe if the worst should happen. Fortunately, once you know the process – it’s usually fairly easy to follow. 

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