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Emergencies, such as fires and explosions, immediately threatening the health of the workers, cannot be ruled out in most companies. In order to minimise the impact, it is necessary that every person in such a situation knows exactly what to do. This requires repeated exercises or drills. Planning and execution of these exercises has to be based on the experience of real scenarios, it has to involve the workers, and the performance has to be evaluated. The drills have to be performed frequently to ensure that no one forgets the processes.

Definitions, role and necessity of emergency drills and training

Companies and institutions have to conduct risk assessments. Such assessments examine all possible hazards, analyse them carefully, and evaluate them according to their likelihood of causing injury and damage and according to the possible severity of the impact. The professionals first concentrate on those events that are fairly likely or very likely to occur, and may cause moderate to extreme harm. They identify preventive and protective measures.

However, they also need to address two more aspects:

  • What should be done in case prevention and protection fail?
  • What should be done in those cases where an event is very unlikely but may cause extreme harm?

Even if an event is unlikely, it does not mean it will never happen, and the company must also study these remaining risk cases. The company needs to be prepared (emergency preparedness) and to have mitigation measures implemented.

An emergency is defined as [1] an incident that:

  • is immediately threatening to life, health, property or environment.
  • has already caused loss of life, health detriments, property damage or environmental damage.
  • has a high probability of escalating to cause immediate danger to life, health, property or environment

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines an emergency as a state '… in which normal procedures are suspended and extra-ordinary measures are taken in order to avert the impact of a hazard on the community. Authorities should be prepared to effectively respond to an emergency. If not properly managed, some emergencies will become disasters.' According to the World Health Organisation, a 'disaster' is defined as: '…an occurrence where normal conditions of existence are disrupted and the level of suffering exceeds the capacity of the hazard-affected community to respond to it.' [2][3]

Such emergency scenarios (as identified in the risk assessment) are listed in table 1.

Table 1: Emergency scenarios

  • Underground mining
  • Plant and surface
  • Forrest-, bushfires
  • Community
  • Vehicle
Chemical spills/leaks
  • Oil spills
  • Ruptured gas main
  • Containment of spill
  • Offsite/onsite
  • Storage capabilities
  • Onsite
  • Multiple
  • Fatal
  • Critical
Natural disasters
  • Flooding
  • Cyclone, snow storm
  • Earthquake, volcano eruptions
  • Severe storm
  • Ruptured dam
  • Mud or land slide
  • Meteorites
Community evacuation
  • Planned
  • Unplanned
  • Dust
  • Chemicals
  • Blasting agents
  • Petroleum
  • Nitrogen
  • Gas line explosion
Civil disturbances
  • Strike
  • Protest
  • Bomb threat
  • Kidnap/extortion
  • Sabotage
  • Other threats
Power failure
  • Electrical blackout
  • Gas shortage
  • Water shortage
  • Communication systems failure
Water in-rush
  • Exploration drill hole
  • Bulkheads
  • Pillar failure
  • Unplanned holing of old workings
  • Tailings
  • Ruptured dam
  • Fractured ground
  • Water main failure
  • Heat/cold
  • Noise
  • Vibration
  • Radiation, radioactivity
  • Chemical
  • Biological
  • Air pollution
  • Water pollution
  • Soil pollution
  • Waste material (disposal problem)
  • Underground
  • Surface subsidence
  • High wall failure/slip
  • Surface excavation failure
  • Structural (building)
  • Automobile accident
  • Train accident
  • Boat/shipping accident
  • Aeroplane accident
  • Hazardous materials in transport accident
  • System/resources
  • Unplanned

Source: adapted from Gibson [4]

Because emergency incidents are quite rare and cannot be predicted, employers and workers must be prepared to react without wasting time. A sense of urgency is required as inaction may multiply the impact.

The situation is additionally complicated in institutions with high visitor numbers (e.g. city halls, museums, zoos), or non-staff occupants (e.g. kindergarten, schools, universities,). Additionally, emergencies in chemical plants and nuclear power stations may affect the wider community and environment.

In order to minimise the impact, every person in such a situation must know exactly what to do. This requires detailed emergency management, and repeated exercises or drills.

Sectors and industries, legal aspects, management

The identified emergency cases need to be evaluated. A decision whether and how to address the situation can be taken after comparing the situation with reference values. These values can be obtained from legislation (minimum requirements), but various other demands need to be considered, such as rules set by insurance associations, standards, cost-benefit evaluations, consultations with workers and neighbours, and company values.

Legal requirements are laid down in the framework and in the workplace directive, but also depend on the sector. They can be found in the following directives:

  • Seveso II, Directive 96/82/EC - 9 December 1996, on the control of major-accident hazards involving dangerous substance [5].
  • Euratom, Directive 2009/71/Euratom - 25 June 2009, establishing a Community framework for the safety of nuclear installations [6].
  • Transport of dangerous goods (Directive 2008/68/EC - 24 September 2008 on the inland transport of dangerous goods) [7]. This directive covers road, rail and inland waterways.

Emergency management

The company has to set up structures that ensure the development and implementation of mitigation measures in order to reduce the severity of any harm to employees and public, as well as damage to property. The structure design should follow an integrated systems approach to the prevention and management of emergencies. It should include the following elements [8]:

  • A related corporate policy, and management commitment
  • Risk management
  • Measures to manage an unplanned event, incident or emergency.

Three levels of response measures can be differentiated: (i) the primary level comprises actions of individuals once they identify an incident•(notifying supervisors, basic fire-fighting, life support, evacuation, escape, etc); (ii) the secondary level comprises the actions of trained responders (fire brigade, rescue teams, emergency physicians, etc); (iii) the third level comprises the deployment of specialised teams and technologies.

  • Establishment of an emergency organisation: defining strategies, structure, staffing, skills, systems, and procedures;

selection of key personnel is crucial, the emergency manager and the authorised persons (including the necessary replacements) should be physically and mentally fit, familiar with the workplace, and based on site in case of an event.

  • Provision of the necessary facilities, equipment, supplies and materials
  • Training of workers (as specified in the following chapter)
  • Evaluation of the system through regular auditing procedures
  • Improvement of the system
  • Periodic risk and capability reassessment
  • Evaluation of the response in the event of an emergency

This system can be incorporated within existing management systems such as ISO 9000 (quality management system), ISO 14.000 (environmental management system) and/or BS 8800 (OSH management system). These systems provide a framework for a structured approach to contain and control emergency situations in a timely, effective and safe manner. As in any management system, the worker involvement is an important contributor to the success of the system.

Visitors, students, etc

A special consideration has to be given to the issue of visitors/pupils/students on the premises or in the buildings. Signage must be clear, and workers who are responsible for the visitors must be trained to lead them safely to the assembly points [9].

Three cases can be differentiated:

  • Private companies: There are usually few visitors and these are only allowed on the premises under the guidance of a company worker. This guide has to be trained to react in emergencies and to get the visitors safely to the indicated assembly points.
  • Schools, universities etc: There are usually a high number of pupils, students, etc. Teachers and lecturers must be trained to guide them to a safe area. Special precautions have to be taken for visitors, as is normal in public buildings, see below.
  • Public buildings, town halls, museums etc: The receptionists must receive regular training for instructing visitors about evacuation procedures, and they must be in contact with the workers responsible for the outsiders, to ensure safe evacuation.

The procedures should be part of the emergency exercises and drills.

Organisation, didactics, and methods of emergency drills and exercises

An organisation should identify the skills and competencies required by staff (and authorised emergency response persons) to cope effectively with an emergency. These can be determined by the results of the risk assessment - i.e. identification of core risks and emergency control measures, development of emergency organisation and procedures, and identification of necessary facilities and equipment.

Skills, competencies training, drills and exercises should generally cover:

  • identification of the incident - when is the worker supposed to take immediate action and to raise the alarm
  • containment - what to do when fire is detected, location of extinguishers, type of extinguisher to choose and handling thereof, disconnection of supplies (power, gas, etc), life support
  • evacuation - use of special rope ladders, slides for handicapped, etc, assembly points, counting and reporting, and extrication,
  • notification of the incident - who/how to notify, (necessary information), by which means (radio, telephone, mobiles, PA, etc),
  • involvement of external response teams - police, fire brigade, ambulance, rescue and recovery forces.

The emergency management system should provide the framework for establishing the training courses and schedules. This framework should be used to specify:

  • the leadership commitment
  • reasons why the necessary expertise, skills and competencies are to be developed
  • details of the risk management and derived measures to manage emergencies (identifying key content elements e.g. fires, explosions, hazardous materials, unplanned movements and discharges, sabotage, bomb threats, security breaches, etc),
  • the emergency organisation (strategies, structure, staffing, skills, systems and procedures) identifying who is to be trained, their role in an emergency, and the related skills and competencies
  • selection and description of training content (didactics)
  • identification of training methods and resources such as aids, equipment, facilities and personnel
  • set of times and frequencies, description of the persons involved (special attention on the authorised emergency response persons), the intensity (ordinary courses, exercises, drills)
  • evaluation and enhancement of the overall system, coupled with periodic risk and capability reassessment. This completes the learning process and ensures that an effective emergency preparedness system is in place.

In case of an emergency, only quick and effective action can ease the situation and reduce the consequences. People are more likely to respond well if they take part in regular and realistic practice. Every person in such a situation must know exactly what to do, so regular emergency drills and exercises must play an important role. Drills should normally include exercises such as practicing with fire extinguishers, guiding persons with mobility issues, special slides for disabled persons, etc.

The following matrix provides details of what has to be considered when arranging drills and exercises.

Table 2: Emergency drills and exercises matrix

  Management Emergency manager Authorised emergency response persons Workers Visitors, students, pupils, etc. External teams
Planning Commitment Responsible for the planning Involved in planning, but not necessarily in setting the date and time Involvement of the worker representatives. Notification in special cases (e.g. disabled persons, sensitive machines, etc) To be notified To be notified
Implementation To set a good example Trigger the alarm, arrange necessary resets (lift, power, etc), contact external teams, receive reports, record the time Monitor the development, count the persons at the assembly point, check building after evacuation, report to emergency manager Apply PPE. Leave the building and meet at the assembly point. Leave the building and meet at the assembly point guided by authorised workers, teachers, etc. To be contacted and informed about the development, may send an advisor
Exercises Take part in exercises Coordinate exercises (e.g. extinguisher, staircase slides for disabled persons, rope ladders) Explain and demonstrate exercises   Conduct exercises May assist in exercises
Aftermath Discuss report and conclusions Log entry, gather all observations, prepare report, present and discuss results. Draw conclusions Report observations, discuss report Report observations, discuss report Report observations Report observations, discuss report

Source: established by the author

Typical course of action

An example of a fire drill in a university is described in the following [10].


Responsibilities are laid down according to type and function of the building. In academic and support buildings, the Facilities Manager (in their role as Building Fire Coordinator, in coordination with the School or Service Safety Advisers) advises on the impact on research, experiments, exams etc. In student houses, the drills are carried out by the Accommodation Manager, acting on behalf of the Residential Facilities Manager. Fire drills for students in halls are arranged by the Residential Facilities Manager and carried out by the Warden or Deputy Warden. Halls fire drills for staff are arranged by the Residential Facilities Manager and carried out by the Accommodation Manager.

Date and time setting

There should be a fire drill every term. The first fire drill of the academic year should take place soon after students arrive, ideally at a time when the building is fully occupied.

Arranging and carrying out

Having decided on a date and time, the Facilities Management Organiser needs to contact the Health and Safety Office in advance, so that someone can attend and monitor the drill. The maintenance department must also be informed of the drill, in case there is a need to isolate certain services that would otherwise shut down when the fire alarm sounds. The engineer can reset any system that cannot be isolated, e.g. heating systems, lifts, gas supplies, etc.

On the day of the drill, the security department has to be contacted to inform them when the drill will take place, and again once the drill is over, telling them that alarms should now be considered real if they occur. Record the drill in Log 1 of the Building Fire Manual.


Consider setting off the alarm from a manual call point rather than using the alarm panel. Doing it this way means alarm investigation teams can put their training into practice. Consider closing off one escape route during each drill, especially the main entrance and exit. This encourages people to use the alternative escape routes. Be aware of anyone working or studying in the building with a mobility issue that would prevent them using the stairs to escape. It may be appropriate to discuss their wishes in advance of the drill: they may want to take part and be assisted out of the building using their agreed means of escape; they may want to go to the refuge and use the communications system but not be taken out of the building. They might wait at the refuge until the drill is over. Also consider anyone in the building with other forms of disability. For example, some heart conditions could make using the stairs in a potentially stressful evacuation a risky business. Do we want someone to take part if they could become ill as a result? Obviously, if there was a real fire they would need to leave the building along with everyone else.

Who can be told in advance?

Unless it is absolutely essential, building occupants, including fire wardens, must not be forewarned of a drill. Exceptions to this must be those situations where advance planning needs to be done to avoid unnecessary injury, loss of research or animal life. Those buildings where such risks exist should already have suitable procedures in place. Similarly, if there are large numbers of the public in a building, telling fire wardens in advance of the drill will enable them to reassure the visitors and direct them safely out of the building.

What to monitor during the drill

A record of the overall evacuation time will be needed for the Fire Risk Assessment, so it is important the total evacuation time is noted and put in log 1 of the Building Fire Manual. Check that those with specific roles carry them out effectively, e.g. fire wardens, alarm investigators, porters, security officers. Does every one go to the assembly area? Are all escape routes used or just the main entrance? Are there people in the building who need assistance to evacuate? Did the procedure work if they chose to take part in the drill? Have those trained to operate evacuation chairs put the training into practice as part of the drill? Did it work/do they need more practice?

What if people refuse to co-operate and remain in the building?

Everyone in a building must leave and go to the assembly area, except for by prior arrangement and only in exceptional circumstances as outlined above. Failing to comply without a valid reason needs to be recorded and discussed with the management. Motivation activities or disciplinary actions have to be considered.

Effectiveness, evaluation, continuous improvement

Audit and review processes need to be adopted to assess and evaluate the effectiveness of the overall emergency systems, procedures, facilities, programmes, equipment, training and individual competencies. This is needed to provide opportunities for improvement, feedback and verification of satisfactory performance levels. Every organisation should test its overall emergency plan at least once per year for each operating shift. Critical elements, such as emergency power or remote alarm systems, should be tested separately and more frequently [11].

During and after the drills, some important items should be monitored: the overall evacuation time, the performance of the authorised response persons, the willingness of the workers, visitors, students, etc to follow the specifications, any shortcomings, such as obstructed escape routes, places for extinguishers, need for more assistance and equipment, etc.

A formal critique should be conducted as soon as possible, preferably immediately following the drill. Recognition should be extended to those individuals or teams that performed well. Weaknesses must be described as specifically as possible, and procedures reviewed to incorporate systemic improvements where necessary. Necessary changes must be implemented, and performance must be monitored for improvements.

Few risks remain static. Consequently, risks and the capability of control and emergency preparedness measures needs to be monitored and evaluated to ensure that changing circumstances (e.g. people, systems, processes, facilities or equipment) do not alter risk priorities or diminish system capabilities.


The world has witnessed many so-called unforeseen events, ranging from fires and explosions, severe accidents, to the Bhopal and Chernobyl disasters. Our alertness must not cease. The nature of emergencies will, however, change as industry changes.

Frequent risk assessment and management provide a comprehensive and structured approach to the understanding of hazards and risks and the development of effective emergency response capabilities and systems. The emergency management system has to be adapted, along with the training, the drills and the exercises, in order to keep pace with on-going developments.


[1] UK Government (undated). Advice on Definition of an Emergency. Retrieved 12 February 2013, from:

[2] EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, A Literature Review on Occupational Safety and Health Risks, Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2011. Available at:

[3] WHO - World Health Organization (2011a). Disasters. Retrieved 2 February 2013, from:

[4] Gibson, G.A., ‘Emergency preparedness‘, ILO (Ed.), ''Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety'', ILO, Geneve, 2003. Available at:

[5] EC – European Community, Directive 96/82/EC - of 9 December 1996 on the control of major-accident hazards involving dangerous substance ("Seveso II Directive"), OJ L 010 , 14/01/1997 P. 0013 - 0033. Available at:

[6] EC – European Community, Directive 2009/71/Euratom - of 25 June 2009 establishing a Community framework for the nuclear safety of nuclear installations, OJ L 172, 2.7.2009, p. 18–22. Available at:

[7] EC – European Community, Directive 2008/68/EC - of 24 September 2008 on the inland transport of dangerous goods, OJ L 260, 30.9.2008, p. 13–59. Available at:

[8] Gibson, G.A., ‘Emergency preparedness‘, ILO (Ed.), ‘’Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety’’, ILO, Geneve, 2003. Available at:

[9] Australian Government Virtual Office (undated). Emergency Procedures. Retrieved 26 February 2013, from:

[10] Health and Safety Office - University of Bristol, ‘’Guidance on arranging a fire drill’’, version 2.1, 2012. Available at:

[11] Gibson, G.A., ‘Emergency preparedness‘, ILO (Ed.), ‘’Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety’’, ILO, Geneve, 2003. Available at:

Further reading

ILO – International Labour Organization (Ed.), Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety, ILO, Geneve, 2003. Available at:

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (undated). Case studies (search string “Emergency"). Retrieved 25 February 2013, from:

HSE – Health and Safety Executive (UK), Emergency response / spill control (undated). Retrieved 2 February 2012, from:

AFAG – Arboriculture and Forestry Advisory Group, Emergency planning, HSE – Health and Safety Executive (UK), 2011. Available at:

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Klaus Kuhl