As kids, we probably remember taking part in fire drills at school. As that loud, buzzing alarm sounded, we listened to instructions, exited the building in orderly fashion, and gathered at the field. While we wondered if there was a fire, many also enjoyed the break from class. School administrators, meanwhile, studied our response. They wanted to be confident we could safely and calmly evacuate if the building really was on fire or another major health hazard was present.

The key to any evacuation is organization. Without it, you run the risk of confusion. If people panic and don’t know where to go, they could become more frustrated, run into each other, and increase their chances of getting hurt. Property damage can also result. These are the last things you and your employees need while trying to find their way to safety.

Practice makes perfect

All California employers must have an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) that outlines procedures for responding to the variety of emergency situations that employees may face, but really it’s just a starting point. Practicing the evacuation plan within your EAP through live drills is critical to ensuring that your employees know and understand their responsibilities when evacuating the building. You have the option to alert your workers that a drill is coming, or make it a surprise.

The latter option may work better because most of the emergencies you’ll face at work occur without warning. The live drill also provides real-time examples of some challenges everyone faces. For example, in a multi-story building everyone—from each floor—flocks to the stairwell at the same time. (Elevators aren’t available during emergencies). So exiting by the stairs—especially if there’s only one or two options—takes time and patience. Practicing patience during the drill will help your employees remain calm in the event of a real emergency evacuation.

Evaluation after evacuation

When the drill is over and everyone is back to work, you can review the process and make any changes necessary. Talking with your employees and getting their thoughts is a good idea as they may offer perspectives you might not have thought of. Concerns may include how long it took to get out of the building or not knowing where the gathering location was. Once you have revised the plan, get everyone back together to review it one more time. Then begin planning for your next drill. And hopefully, that drill will be the next time you need to put your evacuation process in motion.

When we were in school, we may have liked having the fire drill because it meant getting out of class. At work, it’s probably more frustrating because it interrupts the work day. But, if we take the big picture approach, we realize we need to keep our evacuation skills sharp in the event we need to use them. Through regular practice of your evacuation procedures, your employees become more and more comfortable with the drill each time. That way, if an actual emergency occurs, everyone stands a better chance vacating the worksite safely.