Fire drill fun: Creative ways to keep workers engaged in fire safety

We all know the routine: Get up, walk calmly and don’t try to take anything with you.

But a real fire may be anything but routine. That’s why fire safety officials want people to take fire drills more seriously, and they’re finding the most effective way to do that is to add a bit of fun.
When drill participants are surprised, made to think and even made to laugh, they go back to their desks better prepared to handle a real fire and, perhaps, save their own and their co-workers’ lives.

“Having a drill and having fun challenges people. They learn, they remember and they respond. They’re more engaged. And it makes them want to participate,” says Tim Tanner, director, Fire Plan Strategies, a Winnipeg-based company that provides fire safety plans and training.

“It’s not a chore. They want to do this because they realize it’s for their own and everybody else’s welfare.”

One way to make a drill more interesting, and simulate a real-life situation, is to block off the regular exit route, says Neil Kennedy, fire and life safety trainer with PWS Disaster Management Solutions. Bells start to ring, and workers head for the closest stairwell. A few floors down, they find their way blocked.

“We’ll put a person there with a sign saying the exit is blocked with smoke and flame,” Kennedy says. “So, what do you do now?”

In a real situation, he explains, they would need to get to a “crossover floor,” a floor not locked against entry from the stairs and that allows them to get to the other side of the building and another stairwell.

 “It’s fun watching their reactions. Some are like deer in the headlights; they don’t know where to go,” he says. ”We have fun with that. ‘Oh, you got me! I didn’t know there was another exit on my floor. I should have known that.’ ”

But some will remember there’s a crossover floor. That’s when he’ll block the second exit, and participants will have to find yet another way out. “My goal is to get them to look at all three different exits and make sure they know where they are.”

Sometimes, Kennedy pumps a little fog into the staircase to simulate smoke. “It adds a realistic touch,” he says. “People will pay a lot more attention when a drill seems like it’s real.”

Tanner, too, uses props to get participants’ attention. He sets up strobe lights to represent a fire, describes a fictional situation and then asks workers what they would do.

“We take them through it, so they’re actually participating in the drill. They’re not just bystanders, listening to the bells and asking, what do we do?” he says.

During these exercises, he adds, he also lets some participants activate the alarm because most people have never used a pull station. “It’s a big thing for them to be able to activate a pull station and actually cause the evacuation of a building.”

Tanner often invites the fire department to take part in drills. Having firefighters and trucks present gives validity to fire wardens and also encourages participants to take it more seriously.

Like Kennedy, Tanner often blocks off exits to force people to think about other ways to get out. At some buildings, especially industrial sites, he will put police tape across the exit.

“We’re making people think on their feet, so they’re reacting if something changes, rather than just bells are ringing and away we go,” he says.

 “We still have a reporting system,” he adds. “The fire department still gets a snapshot of what’s going on in a building. We’re just changing it around on the inside.”

Food can also make drills more fun, Tanner says. When a drill encompasses an office tower complex, he may hire a hot dog cart or have a barbecue and offer a low-priced lunch for all participants. Or he may announce a competition, the winner being the building with the highest participation rate.

“And the emails go out to everyone,” he says. “People really appreciate that kind of feedback: ‘We did do a good job.’ ”

Sometimes, he holds a draw for all those who attend the debriefing meeting, with the winner taking home a smoke detector or gift certificate. In some cases, they give prizes to the three best suggestions to improve fire drills.

As clients get better, Kennedy says, he looks for new ways to challenge them. He is considering an exercise in which participants take turns blindfolding each other and then trying to crawl to the exit. They see how long it takes to go from desk to door. If the room was filled with smoke, they would have to find their way along the floor.

“You can’t see. You have to crawl,” he says. “How are you going to find your way if the fire is, in fact, real?”