Fire drills are widely practised in schools and other buildings.

Wikipedia explains:

The purpose of fire drills in buildings is to ensure that everyone knows how to get out safely as quickly as possible if a fire, smoke, carbon monoxide or other emergency occurs.

According to Business & Legal Resources (BLR):

Fire drills help prepare employees to respond quickly, calmly, and safely.

Are fire drills successful in making building occupants safer?

I understand the appeals to common sense. I'm wondering if there's evidence.

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    I cannot seem to tag this "social policy." It reverts to "politics."
    – Chaim
    Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 14:43
  • Hello Chaim! Welcome to Skeptics! We are dedicated to verify/debunk notable claims you might have heard or read, so your question is currently off-topic per our standards. Please find a notable source who claims that fire drills don't offer any advantage one way or the other and add it to the question. Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 14:55
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    @Chaim: It appears to be your personal speculation that fire drills are intended entirely to train people to move faster by repetition. There is far more to drills than that, as the links that now appear in your question clearly demonstrate. Even the quote you give talks about two other aspects - ensure people know what to do, and ensure they know how to get out safely. The question is now broader: do fire drills actually help safety, which makes more sense.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 16:22
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    Anecdotal evidence: fire drills -- especially in schools -- make people "get over" the initial shock when the alarm sounds. Both my kids quite recently admitted that they did not realize the alarm for what it was, and were very scared on their first fire drill. Both react much calmer today. Same for when we had a false alarm from one of the smoke detectors in our house. Subsequent alarms are taken much more in stride, and handled rationally instead of instinctively. -- Now, all I need is a third-party source for this. ;-)
    – DevSolar
    Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 16:27
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    Have you any plausible reason to think that fire drills don't have the effects claimed,vor don't make people safer? Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 21:07

1 Answer 1


Fire drills are used both to test equipment (alarms, sensors, fire department notification) and practice evacuating calmly and quickly. It isn't really about training through repetition. A visitor to your school who has never heard the alarm or practiced the fastest egress route will still be able to leave safely in the event of an actual fire — because there will be an audible alarm and marked exit routes.

An old but significant example of the importance of advance warning is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which led to 146 deaths. While numerous factors led to the high fatality rate, failure to quickly inform workers of the danger certainly contributed:

A bookkeeper on the eighth floor was able to warn employees on the tenth floor via telephone, but there was no audible alarm and no way to contact staff on the ninth floor. According to survivor Yetta Lubitz, the first warning of the fire on the ninth floor arrived at the same time as the fire itself.
—Wikipedia, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

So, buildings such as workplaces and schools are now required to have functional fire detection and warning systems, and to have a plan for ensuring prompt, calm evacuation of occupants. A drill tests that the equipment is working properly and demonstrates that there's an evacuation plan in place.

A few regulation examples:

You must have a fire detection and warning system.... You must carry out regular checks... You need to train new staff when they start work and tell all employees about any new fire risks. You should carry out at least one fire drill per year and record the results. You must keep the results as part of your fire safety and evacuation plan.

—UK Government, Fire Safety in the Workplace

For an alarm system to be effective, you must have an emergency action plan that addresses how employees, including disabled workers, will be informed that an emergency exists and how they should respond. The alarm system must inform all affected employees that an emergency exists and what their immediate response should be based on the alarm sequence.
—OSHA Emergency Standards, Employee Alarm Systems

The employer shall assure that a test of the reliability and adequacy of non-supervised employee alarm systems is made every two months.
OSHA Fire Protection Regulations, section 1910.165(d)(1)

Of course, it doesn't do much good if managers demand staff keep working even when an alarm is going off. The purpose having alarms is so warning is given as early as possible so there is time to get out. Having a drill does provide practice, but it also tests the evacuation plan and the detection/alarm equipment, which is more critical to safety.

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    It might also have something to do with preventing people from panicing when they hear an alarm. Drills are more frequent than actual emergencies. So when you hear a fire alarm, you usually assume it's a drill and leave calm and orderly, even in case of an actual fire.
    – Philipp
    Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 19:38
  • @Philipp I certainly agree, but I'm not as able to readily prove that with documentation. Focusing just on "successful in making building occupants safer", it's fairly clear that not having reliable equipment and not following an evacuation plan result in less safety, though.
    – Erica
    Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 19:51
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    It's not just testing the equipment, it's also testing the evacuation procedure -- has everyone left the building, could they find their way out, etc. That aspect does require human participants. I'm aware that the evidence I'm laying out proves that failing to test and/or follow procedure is unsafe, but it's rather hard to create a good double-blind study about this without setting a bunch of fires and seeing whether anybody dies.
    – Erica
    Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 20:07
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    None of the evidence directly addresses the question. You very clearly outline the problem that fire drills are supposed to solve, but you do not provide evidence that fire drills solve that problem. You show that they are required by law, but that isn't really the same. Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 20:29
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    This answer doesn't answer the question at all. It seems more like a really long comment. An actual answer would involve some level of proof that fire drills increase safety, and would address the fact that fire drills like the ones in the US or the UK are unheard of in many Western European countries.
    – Peter
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 10:23

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