The apparent pointlessness of fire drills

This is the view from the front entrance of the building in which I work. Picture from the Daily Universe

I work tech support for Brigham Young University.  This is a pretty large University, and one that is constantly growing and changing to meet its ever-changing needs.  As such, this summer there has been a lot of construction going on around campus.  Specifically, right outside, and within, the building where I work.

Today, for reasons yet unknown, the fire alarm went off not once, but twice.  And as I observed my coworkers and others who work in this building I was struck by what I see as the apparent pointlessness of fire drills.

Fire drills, on the surface, at least, seem to do a lot of good.  They help people be prepared in the case of an emergency.  Often the alarms actually go off, people are instructed to leave the building and gather at some pre-determined location, where there is usually a checklist of some kind to make sure that everyone got out of the building safely.

That sounds like a great thing.  As we practice these fire drills, we become familiar with the process and procedure so that when a real fire happens and the alarms go off for real, we know exactly what to do and we can do it quickly and efficiently.  But what actually happens when the alarms go off, even when there is no fire drill scheduled, most people assume it is some sort of drill.  I was fairly certain that the alarms today were not a planned fire drill (Definitely not the second one.  I mean, who plans two fire drills in the same day?).  I saw my manager almost panic when the alarm went off and he was on his phone immediately, trying to figure out what was going on.  Of course, he was also leaving the building and guiding the rest of us out.  But most of my coworkers did not seem very alarmed(if you pardon the pun) at the fire alarms.

I work in a call center, and a few people wanted to stay an type a few last words, finish up what they were doing.  I had to strongly encourage one person to leave it, and get out.  I understand that a few agents had to inform the customer that we had an alarm going off and that we would have to call them back.  But that shouldn’t take more than a minute, and then you need to be on your way out.

I think that years of fire drills and practices and no actual fires have made us complacent to clarion call of the klaxons.  We hear the alarms and our first thought is, “Oh, there ‘s a drill today? How inconvenient,”  and not, “Oh, there’s a fire! I should get out.”  We dawdle, we take our time gathering things that we want to have if we’re going to be standing around outside for who-knows-how-long, we do not take the fire alarms seriously.

And fire alarms are serious.  They are supposed to indicate that something is wrong and the building needs to be evacuated.  But most of us only hear fire alarms when there is a drill, and so we associate fire alarms with fire drills and complain about the inconvenience that they are for interrupting our work day (unless, of course you are in school, in which case fire drills are one of the best things that can happen.  It’s like an extra recess, for free!).

At what point does preparing become over-preparing?  At what point do we lose the efficiency of fire drills or evacuation practices?  When do they become more like the boy who cried wolf, ignored because they happen all too often, and less of a real serious deal?  I don’t know, but that’s what I was thinking about as I stood around on the lawn, waiting to be allowed to go back to work.  Twice.

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2 thoughts on “The apparent pointlessness of fire drills

  1. I worked in a building that was experiencing construction for a couple years. For one entire year, the fire alarms went off every day, sometimes up to a dozen times during the day shift alone. We were so conditioned to ignore the fire alarms that it because the standard joke that if there were every a real fire, they would find our burned bodies where we collapsed at our desks from asphyxiation.

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