Making the most of planned fire evacuations

Published: Friday, 10 July 2015 07:45

They might seem mundane but planned fire evacuations are an essential aspect of protecting your employees. In this article Nigel Griffin shares some useful lessons about how to get the most out of them.

I have been a business continuity practitioner at a leading bank for over five years and a member of our Incident Management Teams at one of our key employment sites for the same period. As a result, I have been involved for some time in the execution of our regular planned fire evacuations. We test the fire alarm bell on a weekly basis but then once every six months we undergo a full evacuation of all colleagues and occupants of the building. It is to this activity I would like to focus, with a view to sharing my experiences for all those involved or soon to get involved.

These planned fire evacuation drills form an important part of fire safety training for all colleagues. There are clear objectives set for these by the Incident Management Team, with some local variables, but mainly concentrating on ensuring that:

The Incident Management Team plan the dates for these fire drills well in advance. Documentation is prepared to record all the activity and objectives. Our key partner is the facilities management team as they must be able to set the fire alarms off and not escalate to the fire service and security; so early involvement is paramount. The exact process for this must be understood by them and documented so all officers can fulfil.

When agreeing the date and time of the event, as an Incident Management Team, we make all parts of the business that occupy the building aware. We do not publicise the event to all colleagues. But enough parties are aware so as not to cause unnecessary panic and can re-assure any anxious colleagues when the evacuation commences. We also contact the canteen manager to ensure that they can properly prepare and ensure minimal disruption to food preparation. We also put on notice, with the exact time and date, a number of our colleagues with disabilities. These colleagues are still expected to evacuate the building as it is necessary to test their own evacuation plans, but we feel this need not be done in a pressurised manner if it can be avoided.

Despite all this, we often have to manage subsequent changes or at least requests to change the date. This can be because items come onto the calendar we were unaware of when we agreed the date, which would make it unpalatable from a company perspective to proceed. Remember the cost to the company is over 3000 colleagues losing up to 30 minutes of their day so it is not to be taken lightly. Also we often face challenges from such events as senior site management meetings or site visits to the building which have to be pragmatically managed. So we often go through several date and time re-iterations before we arrive at a time and date that is suitable to all.

This takes us to the actual day itself. One of us acts as the overall lead and makes the final call that all is to proceed. We do this in case there are any last minute business reasons but, more to the point, that the weather is suitable! We tend to postpone if there is poor weather as we don't want to soak all our colleagues! So even at this stage the event may be postponed.

We have practiced and executed our evacuation plans as a team several times now. However, we tend to notice the same items re-surfacing. Colleagues still persist on taking drinks out with them which we act on immediately if we see. We always get people using the opportunity for a smoke of a cigarette, again something we act upon. Lastly, we must all wear ID badges and it quickly highlights those that don't as they are unable to get back into the building - they are on their desk as they say to me, which is of no use as I remind them when we are trying to re-enter the building. The Team has fortunately not experienced managers or senior team members refusing to leave the premises as it is ‘only a practice’ but I know this has occurred elsewhere. Finally, we often experience some colleagues complaining that they have muddied their best shoes: our evacuation point is on grass.

As an Incident Management Team we have discussed making changes. So we vary the time of day and day of the week as much as possible so all colleagues are exposed to the practice. We have not gone to the extent yet of blocking one or several fire exits to see how colleagues react but we see the potential from such changes to the process. I don't think we have ever considered using actors to pretend to be dead bodies as think this is pushing the simulation too far! However, we have completed an evening planned fire evacuation as the building is occupied into the evening.

A debrief is held and we invite comments from all. As said, there are always improvements as people change roles; teams move; or even the building logistics alter. From an Incident Management Team point of view it is always a bit of a relief when the evacuation drill is completed for another time. But we always feel elated when it goes well as it vindicates the work that goes into the training and preparation. Needless to say the colleagues themselves rarely thank us and think it is just an interruption to their day. The only time they are grateful is when it is sunny as it a chance to catch some rays: if I only we could organise this every time!

The author

Nigel Griffin BA (Hons) AMBCI has worked within the retail banking services sector for the last 25 years in various different sections. This has ranged from branch roles, within collections and recovery through to IT service management within telephony contact centres. He is presently employed as a business continuity practitioner within Retail Telephone Banking for Lloyds Banking Group. Contact him at NigelGriffin@Halifax.co.uk