OK, the other day we had a fire drill. Standing in the sun outside and watching the rest of the building leave through the front doors, some colleagues and I debated the merits of such an exercise. It seemed such a farce that we were participating in what seemed to amount to all leaving for lunch at the same time. Now don’t get me wrong, I’d hate to be unprepared for an emergency and I see the value in training for possibilities. However, another recent event reignighted the frustrations of interruptions to work for fire drills. The more recent incident was a call for help from outside. A woman came into our office and asked for a fire extinguisher. Apparently there had been a bad accident outside and fire was a possibility. The sadness was none of us knew where the fire extiguisher was. Now I blame myself for that – I should have known! We all should have known. We know now! We also all know how to exit throgh the front door. We know what a fire alarm sounds like and we can see our way clearly through the desks when a drill is called for. What’s the point in that?Surely, if we were going to do a fire drill that meant anything, we should be blindfolded, the usual exits should be shut, and anyone leaving after 4 minutes should be told they’d have smoke inhilation or be dead. The “dead” should be given a quick remedial training session and have an opportunity to try it again. Perhaps that’s a bit over the top but isn’t it ridiculous that we’re asked (usually warned and sometimes times) to walk out of our building when the drill alarm sounds yet not shown where firefighting equipment is?I contacted some fire departments around the world and asked what the evidence base for fire drills was. The responses were dismal. Most chiefs pointed to disasters where people died because they couldn’t get out. I found some journal articles which reported experiments showing elderly and disabled people were slow to evacuate but did not impeed others, and one report that frequent drills sensitises people to the alarm (thus, they are less likely to exit quickly). So what is the evidence? Why do we do them??It is perhaps, for the benifit of the wardens who must practice donning the high-viz jackets, picking up the clipboards, and checking that everyone is out. I can see more benefits for schools, where children need to learn to form lines and where to congregate. But offices of professional, intelligent adults? We should be given better training and tested appropriately or not have work interrupted at all. Right?
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