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Why are fire drills important?

We’ve all been at work or visiting a business when the fire alarm has sounded and everyone has turned to look at each other and asked the question – “has the fire alarm gone off because of a real fire or is it a practice?”

These crucial seconds spent deliberating whether to evacuate or not could be the difference between life or death and highlights just one reason why it is important to regularly practice a fire drill.

In this guide to the importance of practicing your company fire drill we will cover:

  • Why businesses should practice a fire drill
  • How to practice your fire drill
  • How often should you practice your company fire drill
  • Fire drill checklist
  • Who is responsible for a workplace fire drill?
  • Record keeping and compliance
  • Fire alarm system maintenance

Why businesses should practice a fire drill

Firstly it is a legal obligation for all businesses to ensure they have a documented fire evacuation procedure, and secondly, a well-practised fire drill will help save lives!

It is best practice to ensure the fire drill is routinely carried out at regular intervals (at least annually) so that all staff know what is expected of them and can recognise the audible and visual sounds their fire alarm system will emit if an emergency evacuation is required.

Most businesses will run a pre-announced ‘test’ of their fire alarm at a specific time, on a specific day to ensure it works and staff have a chance to remind themselves of the sounds and the evacuation procedure.

Some businesses practice the sounding of the fire alarm when the building is empty. If this is your approach please also ensure you repeat when the building is occupied so that the alarm sound is recognised as the fire alarm by all staff.

If there are scenarios and fire risks that are likely, though unusual, within your business, they should also be practised as part of the fire drill routine.

For example, a Wildlife Safari Park could carry out controlled fire drills in its lion enclosures to test both the staff and emergency response to a scenario whereby a vehicle with passengers in it catches fire whilst driving through the park.

The practice for this scenario might also be done ahead of the re-opening of the park to visitors following Winter or week-end closures, and at periodic intervals during their season. In our opinion, this is an excellent example of best practice.

You should also remember to train new staff when they start work and tell all employees about any new fire risks.

How to practice your fire drill

Legally, you should carry out at least one fire drill per year and record the results. You must keep the results as part of your fire safety and evacuation plan.

As part of the role of a responsible person, this person, or team of people will need to carry out regular checks to make sure that:

  • all fire alarm systems are working
  • the emergency lighting is working (if applicable)
  • you record any faults in systems and equipment (remember to get them repaired!)
  • all escape routes are clear and the floor is in good condition
  • all fire escapes can be opened easily
  • automatic fire doors close correctly
  • fire exit signs are in the right place

As part of this process, the responsible individual will also ensure that the procedures laid down in the company fire evacuation policy are actioned.

This plan must include the following and also take into account the needs of people who may have mobility issues:

  • a clear passageway to all escape routes
  • clearly marked escape routes that are as short and direct as possible
  • enough exits and routes for all people to escape
  • emergency doors that open easily
  • emergency lighting where needed
  • training for all employees to know and use the escape routes
  • a safe meeting point for staff

How often should you practice your company fire drill?

It is important to ensure all staff are trained on the importance of the above fire safety measures and are fully aware of what they must do and where they should assemble in the event of a fire.

Once at the safe meeting point, a register should be called to ensure everyone is present or their whereabouts is accounted for. This is why it is important to have a suitable access control system or process to ensure the entry of staff and visitors to your building is recorded accurately.

Fire drills are critical for ensuring the safety of the employees and visitors to your business’s buildings and properties. Practising scheduled fire drills will help ensure individuals have the knowledge to safely escape a fire without injuring themselves or others.

How many fire drills should you hold annually?

Legally, there is no set figure for the number fire drills to have each year, albeit advice from Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OHSA) recommends that drills are held ‘as regularly as necessary’ to ensure employees are kept prepared for a fire.

Most businesses have a set day and time to practice their fire drill and will send out either an audible or email announcement that the fire drill will be tested so that everyone knows this activation is a practice and they do not need to evacuate.

When to have a fire drill?

Whilst best practice is to ensure the fire alarm is sounded at the same time and day on a weekly or monthly basis, there may be some businesses where this might not be possible. For example, retailers may not wish to inconvenience and confuse customers, and companies that operate shift rotas may want to practice them in line with shift pattern/hours to ensure all workers recognise the fire alarm.

Having a regular routine for practising the fire drill helps to reduce the impact of unwanted or false fire alarm activations and ensure staff are prepared for a real fire and immediately recognises the sound of the fire alarm.

Why have a fire drill?

The fire drill is an opportunity to ensure that your fire alarm is working and that everyone in your building can hear or see an alarm sounding device in their work location. This is a great way to ensure your fire alarm is operating correctly and enables you to call in specialists to fix any faults that have been found. Depending on the fault, you will be able to decide if the fix is urgent or if it can wait until the next scheduled maintenance visit.

This practice also ensures that employees and visitors recognise the sound of your fire alarm, particularly if your business uses other audible sounders for other ‘events’ such as lunch breaks or end of shift.

A fire drill that is well-rehearsed and understood by all staff means that should a fire break out, your employees and any visitors or customers to your business can be guided to safety as quickly as possible.

Should employees be told about a fire drill?

Employees should certainly be aware when you plan to hold a practice fire drill as this will avoid them having to evacuate the building. This notification can be done over a voice announcement system or via an email on the day of the practice. Be sure to stress that this is not an excuse to ignore the practice –  you still need their eyes and ears to ensure the alarms are sounding.

Impromptu fire drills, held to ensure everyone follows the procedure should not be announced. Afterall,  the purpose of this fire drill is to ensure staff are able to fully practice the fire evacuation procedure and help ensure everyone is guided to safety as quickly as possible.

Who is responsible for a workplace fire drill?

The responsible individual (RI) is the person ultimately responsible for fire safety in the workplace. When it comes to arranging and actioning the fire drill procedures the RI may also appoint a number of fire wardens who, during a fire drill practice will follow a checklist for areas and devices they must check. Should a full building evacuation take place, they will be responsible for coordinating those gathered in their ‘fire assembly zone’ and carrying out a register /headcount.

Recording a fire drill has taken place

The date and time of fire drill and any information gathered during the fire drill should then be recorded in your fire logbook so that at the next maintenance inspection the fire alarm engineer has a record of when the system was last activated and of any issues that have been reported.

The fire drill checklist

  • Have a written and approved fire safety drill procedure and ensure it is displayed prominently around buildings
  • Ensure all staff are trained in the procedures they must follow during a fire drill
  • Appoint a suitable number of fire wardens and ensure they are trained and fully understand their responsibilities
  • Practice the fire drill on a regular basis such that staff are kept prepared
  • Hold impromptu fire drills that include a full building evacuation so that staff can practice a full fire drill
  • Keep your fire logbook up to date and ensure the date and time of all fire drills is recorded
  • Document any issues or faults and report to management and your fire alarm maintenance company

Fire alarm system maintenance

As the responsible individual, fire safety is your responsibility, therefore it is crucial that you ensure your fire alarm system is regularly maintained.

Should a fire break out which involves a follow-up investigation, any failures to ensure your system is fully operational could mean you and any others who are responsible for fire safety being held accountable for any inadequate practices or procedures that may be found. This could result in a heavy fine or even a prison sentence.

If your fire alarm system has not been inspected by a competent person, or you need assistance defining your fire drill procedures, Tecserv UK can help.

Our engineers are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and are trained to inspect fire alarm systems. We have distributor agreements with most of the major manufacturers, so if we can help give you peace of mind by ensuring you meet the legal requirements for fire alarm maintenance, please get in touch.

Grahame Tilley

Grahame has worked in the fire and security industry since 1979. He was instrumental in developing a small, regional fire and security alarm company into one of the industry’s most successful specialist companies.

Posted on: 1 November 2022
Last updated: 19 May 2023
Posted in: Advice, Fire Systems, News
Author: Grahame Tilley