Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service are helping businesses maintain their life safety and risk management programmes during the pandemic. Virtual fire drills have been identified as a solution to the problem faced in carrying out traditional fire drills at this time.
Traditional fire drills potentially require hundreds of building occupants to gather in stairwells and assembly areas and are problematic during a pandemic. Even following a return to ‘normality’, tenants in high-rise or high occupancy buildings will be able to use virtual fire drills on an ad hoc basis for new starters or contractors - alongside a minimum of one annual full evacuation to determine the effectiveness of their fire safety management policy.
What is a virtual fire drill?
Virtual fire drills are a simulated emergency procedure which aim to test the processes undertaken in the event of a fire or other similar emergency. A virtual drill should cover the same bases as traditional fire drills without the requirement for close contact during evacuation or assembly.
Basic fire safety awareness training for personnel and fire safety inductions for contractors and visitors should already include “Fire Action” procedures, but with a little imagination and some careful planning a virtual fire drill could provide a safe and effective method of increasing evacuation efficiency in any future real emergency event.
Where it is impossible, due to current restrictions, managers can nonetheless carry out a random evacuation simulating a real fire to test fire safety awareness.
Assessing the need for virtual fire drills
Management must assess the current level of fire safety awareness by asking individuals how they would react to given scenarios, e.g. which escape route they would take for fires detected in different areas etc. The assessment should determine if the company induction has provided sufficient training or if additional training is needed.
The assessment can be:
- Verbal – suitable for assessing groups e.g. factory and warehouse staff
- Electronic questionnaires – suitable for assessing individuals
For Fire Marshals or personnel with additional responsibilities in the event of fire, virtual drills should include:
- Questions relating to interrogation of the fire alarm panel
- Awareness of who to call
- Correct use of fire-fighting equipment
- How to determine and record which areas have been swept for occupants
- Knowledge of liaison with Fire and Rescue Service
In each instance, there should be a suitably sized plan drawing of their workplace with details of fire exits, fire resisting doors, manual call points, fire-fighting equipment, stairways, refuge areas for mobility impaired personnel and assembly points.
Personnel could be asked various questions related to their workplace including:
On discovering a fire
- What action is required?
- Indicate on the plan which manual call points could be activated
On hearing the alarm
- Indicate their understanding of the alarm sound (if multiple tones are used) and what action they would take for each
- Indicate position of the nearest fire exit and if that isn’t safe to use, show an alternative
- When leaving rooms or compartments, what action to take with doors and windows if possible
- What not to do, i.e. stop to collect belongings, finish job etc
- Where to go after leaving the building?
- Who to report to for roll-call?
Advantages of virtual fire drills
Virtual fire drills obviously offer many advantages over traditional drills but should only be used as supplementary to a real evacuation, not as an alternative, unless circumstances dictate, e.g. COVID-19.
- Managers can conduct a drill when it is convenient and need not worry about complaints due to bad weather
- Management have real-time reporting on everyone who participates, where gaps in training are apparent and potential feedback from all involved to improve future real drills
- Virtual drills are inherently safe, as no gathering is required, and there’s no risk from slips, trips and falls
- The use of plans in virtual drills can enhance the learning experience. Personnel can indicate a variety of escape routes, not just the route they use every day and for a real evacuation
- Virtual drills allow induction for new starters, contractors and visitors on the day of arrival
- Virtual drills avoid the major disruption created by traditional fire drills and full evacuations
What managers need to do?
As with any emergency procedure relating to a workplace, the responsible person is required to ensure the fire risk assessment is updated accordingly. Details of any virtual drill including who took part and any feedback relating to gaps in training and areas for improvements should be recorded by management for future inspection by the Fire Authority.