The fire alarm sounds, you leave your workstation and stand in a car park for 20 minutes; someone takes a roll call and you file back inside. For many organisations, this type of exercise goes on unquestioned year in, year out. The fire drill box has been ticked but no one has asked what has been learned, how much it has cost the business, and, more importantly, whether it has reduced risk or improved safety.
Most people can identify the inherent weaknesses of traditional fire drills: an inability to replicate the stress or confusion of a real emergency and the tendency to breed complacency. But so far there has been surprisingly little research (or out-of-the-box thinking) into unconventional approaches or how businesses can gain added value from what is usually seen simply as a compliance exercise.
Opeolu Awolesi, a senior consultant at Turner & Townsend Project Management, which specialises in real estate and infrastructure investment projects, suggests the most likely reasons to look at an alternative are downtime costs and that the prevailing process is failing to engage staff, so neither adding value nor improving safety outcomes.
At Nationwide, the UK's largest building society, it was just these reasons that prompted an overhaul of its drills. Six-monthly evacuations were standard practice across its branch network and administrative buildings until a primary authority partnership with West Midlands Fire Service (WMFS) led it to rethink its arrangements. Among the questions the service asked were: why are there always two evacuations a year? What are you learning from those evacuations? Aren't you just losing money by standing staff outside a building when you should be open doing business?
The organisation has now split its property portfolio into two for fire safety management: the retail network of branches and its major administrative buildings. "The idea was to reduce the business burden and manage risk in an appropriate way," says Andy Beckett, health, safety and fire risk consultant in Nationwide's property and corporate services division. "So we profile locations and categorise them into a risk category, rather than take a blanket approach."
The new procedures, on which Nationwide received primary authority advice from WMFS, are still being developed but in the retail network there are now no standard evacuations of ringing bells and emptying buildings.
"We want the process to influence how and why we do things, so we're using the time better instead to raise awareness, test different aspects of the system, such as fire doors, and for training," says Beckett.
All branches now hold two events a year - in February and July -- which form part of the risk assessment review process.
"We make sure, through induction and through the planned events, that everyone knows where the assembly points are, where the means of escape are, and that those means and everything related to them are checked and reviewed," says Beckett. The events use Nationwide's "knowledge knockouts", weekly sessions between 9am and 9.30am for training or product tests.
"We book two of these knockouts a year, and then issue training and guidance to the branch as to what is expected in that exercise," Beckett adds. "We also use these to raise awareness of other fire safety issues we've had in the network, signposting people through process."
The branches must complete a ten-part fire safety questionnaire. Each question includes guidance about what to check and how to rectify faults. For example, a faulty fan heater caused a fire at a branch in the Midlands at 7am, so one question asks whether all non-essential equipment is switched off and unplugged at close of business.
Nationwide has also developed e-learning modules, which are used at the February event, when the branch or operations manager must complete the questionnaire. In July, the manager repeats the survey with the whole team.
"We're putting in a society-wide management system so we can feed back faults that get logged through the process," says Beckett. "We will then look at the questions so we can incorporate any trends into those, and see whether we need to talk to our suppliers or facilities management team."
The knowledge knockouts and questionnaire data feed a fire risk assessment review, depending on which risk category a branch is in. This is decided on the basis of factors such as whether there is sleeping accommodation above the premises or a shared means of escape with another business.
"It's very much a plan-do-act-review process," stresses Beckett.
For its administrative buildings, Nationwide varies its approach. "Because of their capacity, location or height, they each give rise to different risks, so we need individual strategies," says Beckett. The Swindon HQ has 5,000 staff, while an administrative building on the south coast is eight storeys high and the Threadneedle building is in the crowded heart of the City of London.
You could use virtual environments to look at 'what if' scenarios; if someone went down a dead end or the wrong corridor
The society is now working with WMFS to develop the strategies and tailored training. Beckett says: "At head office, there are traffic management issues if a drill puts 5,000 people out of the building, not just on the site but on the main road. It's a hazard and a lot of work liaising with the local authority, just to tick a box.
"So we're working on another approach -- perhaps a phased evacuation where we would do a floor of a block at a time. Part of this would include fire warden refresher training and e-learning for other staff. We are very much at the start, but we're doing a lot of work with fire wardens, creating communities so they can talk to each other, and share experiences across the group."
Echoing some of the ideas being developed at Nationwide, Awolesi suggests a practical and cost-effective alternative to conventional drills might be to make fire response practice more team-based, though he stresses this approach may be practicable only in buildings where occupants are familiar with the space (category A occupancy under BS 9999).
"Where the occupancy and design is appropriate, rather than evacuating the whole floor, [you could] do team-based activities with a greater focus on how people react to fire and the alarm," he says.
Conventional drills often fail to achieve their objective because people are not paying attention; they think a fire will never happen to them, Awolesi says, adding that an exercise that makes ensuring everyone's safety the goal will be good for team building. "It changes the focus and engages staff; they feel responsible for someone they know."
Ideally, training will not be desk-based but involve realistic scenarios. It could be competitive, seeing which team could evacuate the fastest, for example.
"This way, the workplace is more fun too," says Awolesi, "but the safety message is still being passed. It's the process, procedure and focus that we're changing, not the message."
A team-based programme is also likely to work well when it is linked to the wider objectives of the organisation, as at Nationwide. "Businesses will buy into the team-building aspect more easily than into fire drills, which can be seen as a compliance burden," Awolesi suggests.
Beckett acknowledges it can be difficult to challenge established practices. "Someone will always say, 'Why have we not done a fire drill?' or 'we always did that at my previous organisation'," he says. "But you've got to manage each organisation to suit that organisation. It's about breaking down barriers, particularly through training and involving people."
Awolesi adds: "There is no reason why it can't be done differently as long as it is keeping people safe. A drill is meant to affect people's responses and behaviour in a real emergency, but does that require evacuating everyone every time?" He answers this by drawing on his experience working on fire safety in casinos, where people are loath to leave their money during a conventional live drill. In such settings, dry runs are used instead.
John Norton-Doyle, former health and safety manager at London Fire Brigade, is also open to a more flexible approach. "It is possible," he says, "to make a very strong case based entirely on risk arguments that to do traditional evacuations in many buildings is unnecessary."
An inherent weakness in the drill approach is that "whatever happens, your plan will not succeed because you can never plan for the exact scenario because you've not thought of it. The best you can hope for is an approximation". He suggests that, "while it makes sense to provide signage, training and other preventive and protective measures, people will essentially do what they're going to do. Yes, you do need to make sure if you have to empty a building that you can physically get all the people down a staircase, but that is a different issue."
For businesses considering non-conventional approaches, however, the lack of data on what works remains a hindrance. "It's impossible to benchmark alternatives at the moment," says Awolesi. "We really need an indication of the effectiveness of different methods if people are to alter established ways of doing things."
In particular, Norton-Doyle wants organisations to look more carefully at how people respond to a fire. "Instead of depending on evacuation drills, we ought to be looking more at behaviour and researching the effectiveness of alternative approaches," he says. "We know from the existing research that people tend to use the door they come in through as a means of escape, so one thing would be to get architects designing buildings where the natural in-and-out ports are also the natural risk-based fire exits."
A study in 2011 at the University of Nottingham compared several methods of predicting how people would behave in emergencies, including fire drills, virtual environments (VEs), and a talk-through method where participants described the hypothetical actions they would take.
"It wasn't looking at training effectiveness," says Dr Glyn Lawson, who carried out the research in the university's Human Factors Research Group. Lawson is therefore reluctant to speculate on the strengths and weaknesses of any of the approaches in terms of workplace training without further research.
"One of the dangers with training is that you can get negative training effects if you train the wrong thing, so any of these methods needs to be proven," he says. "There are also concerns about generalising effectiveness; what we see in one situation or one building may not be the same as what we see in a different building."
With these caveats in mind, the project did highlight or confirm some important advantages and disadvantages of the methods Lawson studied. On the plus side for drills, some authors have found they can be representative for fires in which the only indication of a fire is the alarm sounding.
"Drills certainly show some behavioural phenomena that also occur in real emergencies," says Lawson, "such as a tendency towards the most familiar exit -- the one a person came in through, rather than the nearest; and a slow response to an alarm where there are no additional cues, such as smoke or an authority figure giving an instruction."
On the minus side, fire drills cannot replicate distress because of ethical and safety considerations, so behaviour may be different in a real emergency. In addition, there are costs associated with working time lost during a physical evacuation. "It is difficult to run several drills testing different scenarios because it takes people away from their jobs," says Lawson. "So it's usually a case of hoping to prove something works rather than investigating and trying different approaches."
For VEs -- computer simulations in which a person steers an avatar through a building -- the pluses are their low set-up costs and an absence of physical risks (though simulator sickness can be a problem). They can also be convenient: instead of having everyone drill at the same time, individual members of staff could use a VE on a desktop simulator or a laptop during a natural work break.
"VEs have the potential too for understanding consequences of behaviour," says Lawson. "You could use this to look at 'what if' scenarios -- if someone went down a dead end or the wrong corridor."
A further benefit of VEs is that they are useful for reviewing events. "As a participant moves through the building, you can look at their escape route or review the evacuation scenario as many times as you want," says Lawson. He believes, however, that further research is needed to include a social scenario that accurately represents the workplace. "A lot of the literature reports the importance of social aspects in an evacuation, such as the impact of an authority figure giving instructions."
VEs also allow businesses to look at evacuation options more easily during the design stages of a new plant or office.
However, it is often harder to navigate in a VE than in the real world because the usual environmental cues are not there, and fields of view can be restricted, let alone variations in perception of depth. Decision makers also need to understand the wider limitations of VE and simulation tools. "There's a tendency when you see the nice graphics to believe what you're seeing is exactly what's going to happen in the future," says Lawson, "whereas, that may well not be the case."
The talk-through technique is low cost, can be conducted quickly, and shows potential for understanding how people will behave in an emergency. The research concluded that the approach could give a rapid indication of how people might behave, which might be helpful in generating information to develop appropriate response plans, evacuation procedures, training programmes or building layouts.
So far, no studies have been done on how the different methods might be used together to offset fire drills' limitations. In terms of training, Lawson has considered using virtual reality tools in other applications, such as training for vehicle servicing operations where it has been received well and been effective. Further research could evaluate its effectiveness for evacuations.
Though it does not feature in current plans at Nationwide, Beckett is enthusiastic about the potential of using VEs and other technologies as part of future training and worker engagement.
"We did some work with someone who had a 360° camera, which was ideal for creating scenarios and prompting questions for training," he says. "It's important to keep it simple, but we also need to embrace new technologies, innovate and engage staff. It's all about training and awareness, rather than compliance. We don't subscribe to a tick-box approach."