Fire Drills Are a Waste of Time

It is time to fundamentally re-tool the planning, processes and practices of the monthly school fire drill.

Fire drills as commonly practiced in K-12 schools are a waste of time. What’s more, educators know it and resent the intrusion into precious instructional time. Before our firefighter brothers and sisters march on us in a re-enactment of the torch and pitchfork scene from the movie Frankenstein, let us explain.

The history of fire drills in schools dates back to major loss of life in school fires prior to modern detection and construction techniques. The result of the loss of life in school fires like the Consolidated School in New London,Texas and Our Lady of the Angels school in Chicago were the driving force behind an International Fire Code (IFC) and state statutory requirement for a monthly fire drill in all K-12 schools.

The planning assumption forced from this type of horrific event was a very limited time frame in which to safely evacuate from a deeply involved facility fire. The initial goal was to remove staff and students from the building as quickly as possible. Educators embraced this need, and administrators all across the nation invested in stop watches, and the measure of a successful fire drill was in seconds.

Add to this the continually increasing need to maximize instructional time in the classroom, and the pressure to complete the monthly fire drill as quickly as possible is overwhelming. These two factors have combined organically over time to produce a fire drill that serves little purpose as an effective emergency response. Successful is not the same as effective.

It is time to fundamentally re-tool the planning, processes and practices of the monthly school fire drill. New detection technology and construction techniques have altered the basic premise. Even the name should be changed. Students and staff may have the need to leave a school building for a variety of reasons. Fire is only one of the possible events. Leaving a school en mass for any reason is an evacuation. Let’s call the practice for such an event what it is: an evacuation drill.
There are three factors to consider in the planning and execution of a meaningful evacuation drill: sustainability, accountability and rapidity. Let’s examine the factors individually and then look at how they work together to provide a successful evacuation strategy.

from a planning standpoint needs to answer the question, “How long can a school population hold in the open on the school grounds before being adversely affected?” This can include exposure to the local weather conditions with potential for hypothermia and frost bite. In some northern locations at some times of the year both can be a concern within minutes. Failure to consider the very real possibility that a school population may need to spend as much as 30 of 40 minutes exposed to the elements can make the response to one emergency the genesis of another.

is the need to positively account for every person; student, staff member and visitor in the school at the time of the evacuation. If a school community is required to exit a building, the accountability function should take place outside the school. Any planning should provide specific processes to ensure positive accounting and effective communication of the information to the incident commander.

Rapidity is the need to exit a school in a rapid and controlled fashion. The planning assumption should be that the new detection technology and construction techniques have provided a larger window in time to evacuate safely. This is not advocating a long delay but simply one or two extra minutes to facilitate the need for sustainability and positive accountability for everyone in the school at the time of the evacuation.

A well designed evacuation procedure that leads to a well executed evacuation drill will accomplish a number of positive things for a school community. It will move them out of a building in a rapid and controlled fashion. It will prepare a school community to sustain in the elements for a period of time sufficient to allow for transportation or relocation to a safe location. And, it will provide a viable method to positively account for everyone in the school at the time of the event. Ultimately, it will effectively posture a school community for the next step response in an emergency incident.

An effective evacuation drill, planned and executed to provide for accountability, sustainability and rapidity, held on a regular basis, is an absolute requirement of school operations. A fire drill is a waste of time.

Guy Bliesner was formerly the health safety and security coordinator for Bonneville School District No. 93. Brian Armes was formerly an elementary school principal for the Bonneville School District No. 93. They are now co-owners of Educators Eyes LLC.

Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.

Photo credit ViaMoi via Compfight cc

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