Conducting Fire Drills during the Pandemic

Resulting from the coronavirus situation some concerns have arisen regarding testing existing fire and emergency evacuation plans. For example, how to maintain the essential levels of social distancing and additional hygiene needed during fire evacuation drills. It is emphasised this is during drills – in an emergency the controls to prevent spread of the virus do not apply.

First remember the purpose of a fire drill.  There may be a legal requirement that fire drills are undertaken at regular intervals but the real underlying purpose is to help building users gain familiarity about the fire alerting system, evacuation procedures and the exit routes, some of which may not be used on a regular basis, in their workplace.

Fire drills can help in three ways. Building users become familiar and aware of what actions the need to follow in an emergency situation; practical testing routes checks that infrequently used doors and staircases are safe and useable; and, those responsible for the building itself can identify potential shortfalls and improvements they can act upon.

Whenever any changes to the routes within your buildings, whether as a result of the coronavirus or for any other reasons (such as refurbishment work etc.) it is strongly advised that, as soon as reasonably possible afterwards, a fire drill is undertaken.  Existing routes may no longer be accessible, users may be reluctant to use them due to “one way” systems being in place, or signage may be wrong.

Colleagues may have ‘what about’ questions needing practical answers like:

Time to Evacuate – this will be slower evacuation because of distancing?

  • This is acceptable.  The key consideration should be to ensure the building is evacuated and the policy is followed.  Timing fire drills whilst following social distancing guidelines should not be the main consideration.

Assembly Areas – they are not big enough because of distancing?

  • Where possible temporary larger fire assembly points should be allocated.  Where this is not possible would it be possible to undertake fire drills for sections of the building or different departments in rotation. Can a roll call, token or ticket be collected at the Assembly point so persons can disperse over a wider area but still be counted. Would a desk top exercise help if undertaken in a similar way to those in buildings where a full evacuation is not recommended during fire drills.

Waiting Areas – when phased evacuation is need or stairways have new limits?

  • Fire wardens could be posted at each floor level to safely ensure social distancing guidelines are being adhered to.  Again, consideration could be given to running departmental evacuation drills rather than whole building ones.

Door opening – meeting hygiene requirements for multiple users?

  • The fire drills also ensure that staff understand the opening mechanisms of fire doors.  Fire wardens or other staff could be posted, with relevant PPE to ensure the door handles are not touched by an unnecessary number of people.  Doors having emergency fittings could be tested for operation and then held open.

Holding fire doors open – risking spread from lack of hygiene control?

  • Again fire drills ensure staff understand the purpose and note doors specially designated as “fire doors”.  Fire wardens or other staff could be posted, with relevant PPE to ensure the door handles are not touched by an unnecessary number of people or the door can be held open but marked clearly with a suitable notice explaining its purpose and why it is being held open. 

Leading and Assisting – Holding hands and supporting the vulnerable and physical unable?

  • The fire drills should be pre-planned and suitable PPE provided.  In the case of the use of evacuation aids such as chairs or mats then it is not recommended that actual people are placed into the evacuation aids during drills at this time. 

Stair handrails – maintaining hygiene?

  • Prior to the drill gloves could be sited at the entrances to the staircases

Risk assessment – planning safe new routes?

  • Due to the installation of one way systems there may be a requirement to update the fire risk assessments

Re-entry Procedures – extra time lost?

  • A phased re-entry procedure may lead to lost time – however, it should be remembered that the fire drills are a requirement and should be properly planned

Fire Warden – training for new routes?

  • Fire wardens should receive training and instruction, via small socially distanced groups or electronically to update them on the changes to their roles and responsibilities. They should walk all new routes to ensure their own familiarity.

Roll calls – keeping social distance whilst calling the roll?

  • Additional resource may be required to undertake the roll calls in smaller groups. Use of other methods like token or ticketing systems may help if dispersal is required

Public Access – drills with the public in the building?

  • It may be advisable, in the short term, to temporarily undertake fire drills when there are minimal or no members of the public present as managing social distancing measures would be difficult.  Alternatively table top exercises may be more appropriate.

Do not forget to record your findings and make a note of any actions or improvements.

Further fire safety advice is available from the Fire Protection Association

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