Most organisations hold regular fire drills.
Once or twice a year, an alarm bell goes and staff troop outside to the assembly area. Sometimes, news of the drill has leaked out, so staff already have coats on and bags nearby; other times, you see staff sitting at their desks through the alarm – it’s only a drill after all and this email is urgent. Despite the flaws of drills, those observing the process will always learn something about logistics, resources, communications and human behaviour which can be fed back into training, supervision, information and procedures.
Fewer organisations rehearse a silent evacuation, that is one initiated without the use of an alarm. There are two main reasons why a silent evacuation might be used:
- The first reason is common in public buildings such as theatres or shopping centres. Where there are large numbers of people to be evacuated, a sudden alarm can lead to other undesirable consequences, such as crushing of people as a single entrance becomes overcrowded, or accidents as people run down stairs. By using a silent evacuation process trained staff can be given information about the location and nature of the emergency, and the public can be moved in managed phases.
- The second reason to have a silent evacuation is where an alarm might drive people towards a threat, rather than away from it, particularly where the threat is not a fire, but terrorism related. Terrorist attacks can take many forms – whilst a marauding bunch of gunmen might be the most frightening scenario we could envisage, more likely scenarios include suspect bomb packages and chemical attacks. Although the likelihood of an attacker in your building is very low, if it did happen you want people to be prepared.
If you don’t currently have a process in place, the following steps will help you to think through what you need to do:
Who manages the evacuation?
A theatre might use ushers; a school would probably rely on teachers; a factory might depend on supervisors or managers; an office might manage the process via existing fire wardens or marshals.
How will you communicate?
What means do you have of communicating with the people managing the evacuation? Public venues often have flashing lights to advise staff that an evacuation is required, but does that provide enough information during a silent evacuation? Do staff have access to text messages or emails quickly enough to send information that way? Can telephone systems be configured to contact a set of numbers and provide a consistent message, or in a smaller organisation would a telephone cascade be sufficient?
If there is a public-address system this makes communication much easier – but are code words needed to hide the intent of the message from members of the public or from intruders? If you have lots of mobile workers who might be returning to the workplace is there a quick way of warning them to stay clear?
Where can people go?
Other than the designated fire assembly area, where else can people go? Consider a range of scenarios – a suspect bomb in the assembly area; attackers are on the side of the building nearest the assembly area; a threat that makes it safer to stay inside the building. Where inside the building can people find a temporary refuge? Even in your normal fire evacuation drills you can practice by shutting off exits people normally use, so that they learn about other ways of exiting the building.
Do people know what to do?
Do all staff, contractors and visitors know what to do? Check your induction procedures. Staff should be told what to do on their first day, not a month later. All contractors and visitors should receive an induction on arrival. The induction doesn’t need to take long, but needs to cover essential information about how they will be alerted and routes to take. If you use flashing lights or strobes, or code words, does everyone know how to interpret them? The National Police Chiefs’ Council has a video you might want to use as part of your safety training.
Test, test, test
It is unlikely the process will work perfectly the first time. Initially, test the plan with a smaller number of people. Desk top reviews, where the key players sit around a model of the workplace or a map and work out where people will be, how they will move and so on will find plenty of snags to improve on. For public venues, get the staff to practice out-of-hours initially so as not to disturb business. Some staff could play the roles of the public. Teachers could practice as part of an in-service training day, when the children are absent.
Practice, practice, practice
Once you have tested the process on a small scale, you will need a full-scale drill. It might not even matter if people do know it’s a drill the first time you do it. A theatre might wait until the end of a performance; a school might run the drill just before break starts; a shopping centre, ten minutes before closing; a construction site during a stand-down event. The aim of the drill is to show people what they would need to do – they don’t need to believe it’s real to get the benefit.
As with safety and health, the best protection against a security attack is prevention. Make sure everyone knows how to report unusual activity, unknown vehicles or abandoned luggage. If staff see something suspicious, silence is definitely not golden.
A good first step in preparing for any kind of drill is to have a risk assessment in place. Our risk assessment software module is designed to help you prove duty of care and provides excellent oversight of risk in your organisation. For more about our risk module, click the button below: