A Fire Drill is a Ticked Box, Not a Security Solution

Most organisations, when asked about what their evacuation procedures are, will describe the same thing. Whether it’s schools, hospitals, finance firms, shoe shops, rural golf courses or urban nightclubs: the most familiar emergency rehearsal is nearly always the fire drill.

Despite the diverse range of organisations and locations where these fire drills take place, they often look much the same. There will be fire marshals, perhaps wearing high-vis vests and holding clipboards, people grumbling about the weather as they shuffle down the stairs to the exits and a designated area – a playground, car park or side street – where people stand around asking each other when they’ll be allowed to go back inside.

However, these drills seem to be based more on habit and familiarity than up-to-date security expertise. Chris Phillips, former Head of National Counter Terrorism and Founder and Managing Director of the International Protect and Prepare Security Office (IPPSO), highlights some of the reasons why: “Mustering your people in one place during an emergency has always seemed to be a good idea. After all, in a fire situation it seems sensible to have some control over where your staff are and to check that they aren’t still in the building. However, I think that in the main, business have only considered the fire evacuation. What they need to do in a terrorist incident has not been part of their planning. This needs to change.”

emergency button chipped paint

Those that have considered the threat of terror are often still basing their protocols on the emergency response they’ve practiced since primary school – the fire drill. But fire is not the only emergency that an organisation may face. While fire drills are important, they do not provide the best response to other threats to UK workplaces, including terrorism.

How can a fire drill be dangerous?

“In a terrorism incident, bringing all of your employees into one place is simply doing the terrorists’ work for them,” warns Chris Phillips. “There are many examples of where terrorists have attacked the muster point or RVP. The IRA consistently used this method and both Al-Qaeda and ISIS have used it across a number of different attacks worldwide.  Two prime examples are the attack at Tiger Tiger in London and the Bali nightclub attack, where secondary devices were placed at the likely muster point. This issue is also exacerbated where several or more buildings are evacuated at the same time. Invariably, the buildings will use the same muster point.”

For inner-city businesses, overcrowded muster points are a very real hazard. During incidents that affect a whole area – for example, the fire on Kingsway in Holborn, London, that lead to thousands of people being evacuated – you may well be jostling for space at a muster point unnecessarily. 87% of people in the UK own a smartphone, a figure that rises to 95% for those under the age of 34. With the vast majority of the workforce now having access to an advanced communication tool (a tool which is usually the first thing to be grabbed when a fire alarm goes off), emergency responses could be much more dynamic. Why have everyone huddled in a cold, crowded car park in the rain?

holbornfire evening standard
5,000 people were evacuated from the Holborn area following an electrical fire underground in 2015. In busy areas, there simply isn’t space for everyone to gather for a roll call.

How can evacuations be done more safely?

“We now have the ability to communicate with our people more easily. Dispersing allows staff to move further away from the incident whilst maintaining some degree of awareness of where they are and gives managers the ability to tell them what they should do next (go home, return to the office etc). It simply disperses the large group of staff and thereby the risk of them all being caught up in the same incident.  It also of course allows them to be comfortable and to take cover in coffee shops away from the scene etc,” explains Chris.

laptop and latte
Remote working is a crucial factor in operational resilience. Photo by Olena Sergienko

Using a crisis management app, it is much easier to have everyone scatter to the nearest coffee shop (or shelter in the nearest pub) and simply use mass notification to give further instructions. “Imagine a serious incident in any busy city centre. Local authorities already have dispersal plans. Businesses should do likewise, but have controlled dispersal using technology to maintain contact,” says Chris. SMS, email, in-app messaging and instant conference calling are all possible means of managing a dispersed team when they have smartphones. A team that will then not be exposed to the elements, overcrowded muster points or those with malicious intentions.

Organisations have a legal and moral responsibility to look after their people to the best of their ability during a crisis. However, fire is not the only threat and the traditional ‘evacuate and muster’ fire drill is not the best possible response. With the right tools, emergency protocols can be made more efficient, safer and more dynamic. “Fire drills are essential. But with terrorism and other major incidents becoming more frequent, we must have plans that deal with those issues.”


YUDU Sentinel is an app based crisis management platform in case of fire, terrorist and cyber attacks, or any other critical incidents. Crisis managers have immediate access to an independent two-way communication (SMS, voice, email and in app messaging) and can view and share key documents on mobiles. Sentinel is a cutting edge tool trusted by law firms, hotels, theatres and more. Find out more at www.yudu.com/sentinel or contact us on Twitter @YUDUSentinel.

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