Sorry if this is not the right board, I wasn't sure where to ask this.

We have a scheduled fire drill next week at work. We are not informing staff in advance.

I am one of the admins onsite having to clear the place, I am expecting a lot of people to stay put and to ask the question "is this a drill?". As far as I am concerned the question is meaningless, they should evacuate regardless.

How should I respond? Should I lie and say no it's not a drill, or should I say yes it is and risk their staying put or complaining that it's inconvenient?

Update: Thank you so much for the excellent answers here. Ironically, during the drill no-one asked the question, however, I have been in evacuations before where people have asked and I haven't known how to repsond. Hopefully this topic will help others who find themselves in similar situations.

A second point: We had a post-drill rundown and one of the points raised was: do not have long discussions or argue with people who refuse to leave: report them to an assembly point coordinator or fire marshall. This echoes, in part, the guidance given in the accepted answer, and I thought this was very useful information for both a drill and a real fire.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Neo
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 12:42

15 Answers 15


How should I respond? Should I lie and say no it's not a drill, or should I say yes it is and risk their staying put or complaining that it's inconvenient?

Tell the truth.

Tell them that Yes, it is a drill, but that they are required to evacuate promptly.

If there is a protocol for handling folks who decide not to evacuate, follow that for those who deserve it. As one of the onsite admins, you need to learn those protocols if you don't already.

Some companies have a protocol requiring evacuating employees to meet in a particular place and be counted. Some companies have a protocol on what to do when an employee doesn't show up in the meeting place promptly.

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    You can add a carrot and stick to this solution: make sure they know that if the drill does not meet the required targets for compliance (e.g. speed of evacuation of the building) the result will be more drills, until it is demonstrated that the targets can be met!
    – alephzero
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 0:02
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    @alephzero: The beatings will continue until morale improves? :-) (Not really seeing a carrot here) Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 2:59
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    @ShadowRanger The carrot is less beatings! Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 4:44
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    I have worked in multiple places where members of the local fire department make a sweep through the building during the test and issue fines to people who ignored the fire drill, and also to those people's employers. Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 11:36
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    @zhantongz That is not the case at almost every place I have worked in the US as an exempt employee for 40+ years. Even in normal times, people might be working elsewhere, e.g., at a client's facility. With one exception involving a job with a security clearance, I have never had to sign in when I arrived at work, came back from lunch, or came back from an off-site meeting, or sign out when I left. The standard practice is that visitors are required to sign in and sign out, but not employees. Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 11:52

Question: Is this a drill?

Answer: Treat it as a real alarm.

You shouldn't lie, but also you want them to do the real thing. And you also don't want them to ask the question. You need people to get used to the idea that it doesn't matter if its a drill, they have to do the correct evacuation procedure anyway. You don't want people saying "If it's not a real alarm I'll ignore it", and you don't want people's first reaction to an alarm to be "I wonder if this is a drill - let me go and find somebody to ask." Smart people will know what you want and do it.

In most cases anyone who is paying attention can always tell that the alarm is a drill. For a building of any size the fire department is usually present, and at least there will be people with clipboards standing around monitoring the evacuation.

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    This is the correct answer. I would have phrased it as, "What difference does it make? You are required to behave the same either way."
    – Dúthomhas
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 22:50
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    No, the answer is "Yes, but treat it as real". Or else you can bet that someone will call the fire department, another will call the papers, and some other three will start going on their SOME account to become viral stars immediately. Or something else, impredictable but bad. It is just not worth it.
    – Stian
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 10:27
  • A bit more wordy, but I'd go with "If you've not been explicitly told to expect a drill, treat it as if it isn't one". In fact, even if you are expecting a drill it could still be a real event coincidentally happening around the appointed time for the drill. @StianYttervik - if they do that it is a problem for HR to slap them about for, drill or no drill, IMO. Better to weed that sort of behaviour out in drills along with other protocol breaches, before they become a problem if a real event occurs. Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 12:05
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    @StianYttervik Great! You'll know who to fire (wink wink) Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 13:39
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    @StianYttervik It's normal, especially for a building of any size, that the fire department has already been told there will be a drill. And you want people get used to (as the meme says) "Exit building before tweeting about fire." Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 14:18

You just answer "yes"

People know drills will happen and I don't know anyone that won't comply with the evacuation.

However, when I'm talking with a client, they will be far more understanding if I say "I'll be back in five minutes, I have a fire drill" or if there's a real fire than when I would just be unavailable out of the blue.

Sure, this seems to defeat the idea that the fire drill has to be as close to the real deal (where you would/should not inform the client before leaving) as possible, but that's because it's an outdated idea. Fire drills are relevant because you want everyone to know what to do and where to go during a real fire, not that they do it automatically.

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    I've always thought these drills would be so much more realistic with some well placed smoke generators and maybe one or another stuntman running while on fire... But this proposition was always met with doubts, don't know why.
    – Laurent S.
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 12:58
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    @LaurentS.: Ah yes, the Dwight Schrute approach.
    – Peter
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 15:05
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    To give a real example of why these test runs are useful: I once was in a fire drill where the door at the bottom of the emergency stair well turned out to be locked. That would have been disastrous if it had happened in a real fire.
    – Llewellyn
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 20:40
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    @Llewellyn similar thing happened to me: people made their way to the closest "fire exit" (good) but then the door to the outside had a "break glass in case of emergency" thing, and nobody would break it because they were pretty sure it was a drill (bad) so people just piled up near the emergency exit and then gradually turned around, walked back through the building and to the main entrance/exit (that they went in and out of every day on their way in and out of work) because they knew that one to be open! This was a crowd of probably 50-70 people! Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 21:15
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    Btw, people will do things in a known emergency which they won't do in a drill or other uncertain situation... like if there was an actual fire behind you and there was a lock on the door, people would smash it down rather than just say "oh it's locked idk what to do now" etc. but I doubt they would do that with no sign of actual danger, for fear of reprisals re: "destroying company property" etc. I know I wouldn't like to be the person that kicked down a door at a repair cost of $5000 or whatever when it was "just a drill"! Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 21:19

I want to add something that is missing in the other answers.

Another important reason why we do drills is to make everyone think a real emergency is just a drill, too. That will sound stupid and counterproductive at first, but it has a very important consequence: People will not panic. They will follow (what seems to be) a regular, boring procedure.

Without drills, every alarm could lead to people trampling over each other in fear of their life. If everyone considers it a drill instead, they will walk out orderly and, thus, faster. Compare it to people dying at a Black Friday sale chaos.

Naturally, the answer to the question is: Yes, it is a drill and everyone needs to treat it as real.

Treating an emergency as real does neither entail running instead of fast walking nor does it prevent people from ensuring their work place is put into a reasonable safe state.

If there is a difference between a drill and a real emergency, then something is wrong (heh). But seriously, if anyone does not treat a drill as real, an appropriate teaching measure should be executed.

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    "the answer to the question is: Yes, it is a drill and everyone needs to treat it as real" - The question wasn't whether people should treat it as real, it was what you should tell them. I'm assuming you're not advocating telling them "it is a drill and everyone needs to treat it as real", because that will go against "make everyone think a real emergency is just a drill". Or are you also recommending lying and saying a real emergency is just a drill? (That would be a terrible idea, I imagine, and could probably get you thrown in jail if someone dies for not taking it seriously).
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 23:03
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    This. I've had one genuine evacuation - someone filled up the building next door with acetylene gas, and everyone nearby was moved. And no-one asked whether it was a drill or not, and no-one rushed or panicked, and it wasn't until we got outside that we discovered the next building had been a bloody huge bomb waiting for a stray spark. And that would have caused some anxiety if we'd known, for sure!
    – Graham
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 23:04
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    @NotThatGuy The point is to get your people used to not asking. Drills get you used to evacuating calmly, and you don't ask, you just do it. Then when you need to do it for real, you do it fast and calmly, just like the drills.
    – Graham
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 23:09
  • On what are you basing the assumption that people will panic if they know it's not a drill? I've had one genuine evacuation and no-one panicked even after being assured that there was actually a fire. I imagine people will panic if they see a fire, and that could make other people panic regardless of whether or not they thought it was a drill. People who've had unresolved past trauma with fire may also panic, but, unless you're their therapist, you should probably give them ample warning about the drill (but you very well may not know about past traumas of coworkers/employees, so...).
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 23:23
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    @NotThatGuy Except no doubt you'd had regular drills, so naturally people were better at dealing with it when it came to do it for real. As this answer says: everyone needs to treat it as real.
    – Graham
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 0:22

How should I respond?

Respond with "Please follow our evacuation procedure immediately!"

Then deal with those who choose to remain after the drill is over. It's up to management whether to discipline these people, or to provide emergency evacuation training, or whatever.

The point is, that you should allow the drill to proceed, instruct everyone to follow the procedure, and to deal with the results after the drill is complete.

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    Unless you know the exact situation of every single employee in detail, you cannot know if they have a valid reason for asking. Perhaps they received permission to stay put because their business is too critical, or perhaps they should really take a pill for a non-lethal condition for which waiting can come with a serious risk. They may even be extra susceptible to pneumonia and like conditions. Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 20:19
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    +1 for the only correct answer - there should be no debate at all otherwise the drill is pointless (and what happens when a fire starts during a drill .......)
    – deep64blue
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 20:41
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    @DennisJaheruddin people whose role is critical all the time and need to stay in place during a drill (but not a real fire, presumably!) would presumably be notified of the drill ahead of time so wouldn't need to ask "is this a drill". Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 20:55
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    @DennisJaheruddin Nope, it's the other way around. If your role is critical somehow, or you have some medical issues which need special attention, you have your name on a list for the fire marshals' special attention. Anyone on that list immediately gets whatever arrangements have been made. And anyone not on their list by definition does not have a valid reason, so the fire marshals are fully entitled to kick their asses out of the building without further explanation. In other words, if you have to ask, you don't deserve an answer. :)
    – Graham
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 23:20
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    Plus, the list should be a prompt to have a post-mortem afterwards to assess why there are critical people who really cannot leave for a drill, as this is a smell that there are practices that can be improved to reduce business-continuity risk. Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 9:37

I am a U.S. Navy Veteran and a previously qualified fire fighter (because all sailors are, I'm not special). I also have several years of military and industrial safety training, and I've been a trainer and a drill observer. The question itself ("Is this a drill?") may have exposed a culture problem that needs to be addressed.

In a real fire, in a modern building, the atmosphere can become lethally toxic in seconds, and the entire space can become engulfed in two minutes. Egress may quickly become impossible. During this, people need to behave as calmly and competently as possible, even if they're scared. If they can't evacuate they need to remember to keep low, cover their nose and mouth, and try to remain alive long enough for fire rescue to arrive. Failing to fully engage a fire rated door as you evacuate can lead to the loss of evacuation paths, getting more people injured or killed.

They should be visibly upset while the drill is ongoing, and they should be practiced enough to do everything right anyway. That's the point. It's not about making the boss look good, or keeping the insurance company or the building owner happy. It's about surviving without being permanently disabled by heavily scarred lung tissue.

All concerns about lost productivity, lost dollars, potential secondary damage, etc. should fall away the moment the alarm sounds. Flood the zone with observers to take notes. If the fleeing employees leave something legitimately dangerous going, fix it, and use it as a teachable moment. When a real situation arises they really might only have thirty seconds to get away from where they're standing by the time an alarm sounds.

The most useful answer, if not the most honest, is that there is no such thing as a fire drill.

  • completely agree with everything except that last sentence. Yes, there is such a thing, the OP has this exact thing coming up. It's a drill - but you are right that the question reveals a problem - that the person asking potentially has a mindset of deciding for himself whether to comply with the alarm or not.
    – Tom
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 10:22
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    This. I'm amazed that people are even asking. Also, as the 'lead' Fire-Marshal at my workplace, neither I, nor the other marshals are informed when there is a drill. This is the way it should be, and it also means I could answer honestly "I don't know". But as I've already said - people don't ask. We have had the occasional idiot who is too important to get out, and they were simply reported to management.
    – SiHa
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 10:29
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    @SeanBoddy, as you were a sailor in the armed forces, I think it may not be reasonable to expect the same level of discipline in the average office workplace, or to expect people to do as they are told without question. Things are not arranged for battle conditions, and the systems for fire safety will (for better or worse) reflect that. People also may ask about a drill not because they intend to avoid compliance, but simply because they expect to be kept informed and to be communicated with - they are not soldiers taking orders.
    – Steve
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 11:12
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    This is the best answer. The fact that some people are attempting to exempt themselves from drills (as the OP described) indicates a culture problem. Fires still happen, and though it's unlikely these days to have a "Triangle Shirtwaist Factory" disaster, the people who aren't taking these drills seriously increase the risk of disaster in the unlikely event of a fire.
    – teego1967
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 13:27
  • @Steve, there are two burned down houses on the block where I live. We use fire and heat everyday in the modern world and it makes people complacent. I understand what you're saying, but I'm not expecting office workers to be steely eyed warriors of the deep. I'm saying that if they fully understand the risk, they wouldn't take the time to ask, and that if they DO ask, it represents an underlying misunderstanding of exactly how fast a fire can change, and I expect the organization to do something about that.
    – user71257
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 18:38

My preferred answer to this question as a fire warden was always:

"I do not know. Please follow the evacuation procedures."

Because in essense: I did not know. Yes, some times I was notified that a fire drill shall happen. But did I know what I assumed to be a fire drill was really a fire drill? No. If I assumed it was just a drill while coincidentally there was a real fire I would have lied too. 999 out of 1000 times my assumption would probably be correct.

The "I do not know" answer covers me and my colleagues. Me as I can concentrate on regulating the proper procedures and my colleagues as they follow these procedures. We both learn how to deal calm and correctly how to deal with a stress situation where panic is counter productive.

Every time a fire alarm goes, assume it is for the real thing and act accordingly. And hope it is just another "damn drill" that interrupts work flow.

;tl'dr /off

Some comments addressing issues mentioned in other answers

Medical emergencies avoidance

Human psychology is tricky. Preferably we want to go about our routine and habits because we are used to.

An emergency is the actually opposite to routine and habits to the normal person. As such the fire drill is the way to create a habit in an emergency.

We want to believe "it is just another drill / malfunction and I do not need to follow protocol because it is inconvenient". That is why people die in a fire. And contrary to belief it is not the fire that kills. It is the smoke. And smoke is a lot faster than fire.

Scheduled drills

In the UK it is standard to test the fire alarms regularly. Just to make sure these things work in a work place. These are known times. And normally the alarm only sounds for a couple of seconds.

It just so happened once in 10 years that we actually had such a drill going for 30 seconds. Which was too long. People looked around towards the fire wardens. Fire wardens put their high-vis jackets on. Even we were reluctant to call an evacuation because "this is just a check".

Interestingly once the fire wardens stood up people started to follow protocol and went towards the emergency exits. Couple of seconds later our main administrator came around to call the evacuation off.

Side note: There actually was an emergency. The person doing the fire alarm check slipped on the stairs and therefore was unable to stop the alarm on time.


People going back to continue work once told "This is just a drill". Or from experience:

  • Grab their cuppa and then go down some metal stairs in a pulk of people
  • Others running out of a meeting room to "just save a file" on their desktop computer actually delaying other people

Hence fire drills are part of forming habits. Habits become part of routine. Routine prevents stupidity as people have less to think about. When people just follow protocol because it is their habit then that routine saves lives if and when the emergency happens.

  • Good point (however I would add that a drill was scheduled).
    – eckes
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 10:58

In addition to the main answer (which matches my intuition and experience that saying yes without lifting the urgency is the most productive), please keep in mind:

Do not lie!

Being clear is likely best, deflecting the question is a possible alternative, but telling a lie is not a suitable alternative.

If you tell people it is a lie, they will hold you responsible for it

  • Business wise: They may have instructions to stay in case there is a drill
  • Personally: You may never regain their trust
  • Medically: Maybe they are susceptible to pneumonia, or required to take pills unless there really is a fire. Perhaps they get stuck somewhere on the way out and end up having a panic attack, resulting in a medical condition and costs.

And as you have no idea about the full context of the person you are lying to, it is not likely but they may hold you legally responsible as well for any of the above damages caused by your lie.

The only exception I can think of, is in a setting such as the military, if you have received very explicit instructions to lie, and the extreme situation that follows is intentional. (And in my country, that would not be acceptable for a normal company that wants to know if their employees can leave the building in the target time).

  • And if there is really a fire while I as fire warden assume a drill then I will lie as well. Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 9:14

The purpose of a drill is for everybody to rehearse the relevant procedures and to be thus somewhat prepared in the event of a real emergency, rather than startled by it.

It will prepare them to think about activity they need to conclude which could itself be dangerous if suddenly abandoned (including that which may create a real danger during a drill), to think about where they need to go, and to be physically familiar with corridors, stairways, exits, and muster points.

Additionally, it is to prove that it can be done, including when the plant of the building is set into a condition of fire alert, such as where lifts shut down, where access-controlled doors need to release, where automatic fire doors need to swing shut. Persons of responsibility might have additional responsibilities like confirming rooms have emptied, getting the fire register, and other things that are not solely concerned with exiting the building.

A drill is definitely not to sow fear or uncertainty, or to examine how people will react if they are in fear or uncertain. I would dare suggest that an unannounced drill should be criminal, because fire alarms almost always are either drills or faults, and when there is an unannounced and unexpected sounding, you want people to take it with the utmost seriousness, and to behave somewhat more automatically in accordance with how they have been prepared to do so by previous fully-announced drills.

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    I don't see how this answers the question.
    – Dúthomhas
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 22:51
  • @Dúthomhas, the question asked whether they should disclose whether the event is a drill or not. Was I not being clear when I said "an unannounced drill should be criminal"?
    – Steve
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 23:41

First, I would note that you don't need to know if it really is a drill or not. The admin team can perfectly prepare not knowing the exact time it will happen. That could be chosen exclusively by the person in charge to launch it.

Of course, you know that it is likely a drill. Most of the employees know that as well, even if actively told it is not. Coincidentally, there is a real emergency a few days after reminding everybody the evac rules. But, while you were preparing a drill for Thursday, a real emergency could happen on Monday!

So, I would probably acknowledge it with something like “It probably is, but just in case we still need to evacuate”.

Sometimes there is a warning in advance that "Tomorrow we will be doing alarm maintenance, please do not evacuate if they trigger." This is WRONG. What will you do if there is an emergency tomorrow? That would be the perfect time for an actively malicious action (e.g. a disgruntled employee), since your alarm system will be actively ignored. Your procedure needs to be robust and, if in doubt, fail safe.

You could for instance follow up after every alarm with a loudspeaker announcement: "please evacuate" or "this was a false alarm, please stay there". But, that should be done on every case. Don't evacuate if nobody tells you to? What if the guy that went to check if there was a real emergency (and those that went looking for him), fell unconscious due to e.g. Carbon monoxide in the room? This is a real threat that produced many casualties! Unless it is explicitly stated not to follow up, the default action (after giving a defined time for reaction) for the employees MUST be to treat it as something requiring evacuation of the affected zone.

A tricky drill scenario would be to trigger the alarm, say it was a false alarm. Then trigger a 'real' one in a few hours. Most people will assume (with no evidence) it is another misfiring, and "die" in the drill. Which is what would happen in the case where it is initially diagnosed as a malfunctioning sensor ("the smoke detector tripped, but we checked and saw no fire"), but the sensor was right, and there is a real threat which can end completely burning the building.

Some people have mentioned about people that need to know it is fake to "continue working". Well, that may be the case in very specific circumstances. That people should be briefed in advance and get confirmation after it is triggered that they are indeed expected not to follow the normal rules (a mass email to the affected people which is sent just after doing it would be a simple way to discreetly convey that). What are you doing which deserves such level of service? Are you in charge of fielding emergency telephone number calls? (911/112)

Even in that case, you should be able to evacuate the premises, having the service transfered to another dispatching office (with no advance notice!).

What can be done is to set expectations, like stating that everybody should be out of the building in 4 minutes, so they can politely finish the call with the customer before hanging the phone, pick their jacket and slowly proceed to evacuate.

As mentioned, people react somewhat differently when perceived as a drill vs a real emergency. seventyeightist mentioned in the comments people not wanting to break the glass in a perceived drill. Some people could get outside, notice it's cold and go back to get their jacket "since it's just a drill". On the other hand, if they think it is not a drill, they could run over each other (despite knowing perfectly they should not run) or go take out their car to keep it from the fire (then causing the emergency services issues to reaching the building!).

Cort Ammon mentions that there could be a medical issue. If suspecting it is a drill, then it seems reasonable to get out-of-character and confirm that. Note however, that should also have been covered. Let's suppose that during evacuation someone breaks a leg. Option A may be not to move them. Option B to get them out of the building at any cost. Of course you will want different options depending whether it is a drill or not. But it also depends on the kind of emergency! The procedure should probably detail a way to contact with the emergency coordinating team, which would then direct the appropriate behavior: "Please wait there for the emergency services", "We are sending a couple of volunteers with a stretcher to your position", or even be asked to follow extraordinary advice "Firemen have indicated us that it is still safe to use the North elevator, so try to reach there and get out ASAP!". I dare to say this is also what should have been done in the server case.

You may have noticed that I mentioned many times how the procedure should have taken many things into account so that when the need arises, it is clear what needs to be done. I want to think that they are often good, well-thought documents, even though most probably when the day comes most people will not have read it (!) and will usually rely on learning how to act based on past drills actions and what is done by the people around them.

May thou have your evacuations be drills and not having to suffer real emergencies!

  • I once worked in a company where there was a regular alarm test (to ignore) every week, just before lunchtime. I never really understood the point of the test, which sounded the alarms for a few seconds and then turned them off. The result was that when the fire alarm went off at other times, people's response was delayed by a few moments while they realised it wasn't the time or day of the normal test. Sometimes even at the scheduled time, it would go on longer than normal, and after maybe 20-30 seconds some people would start towards the exit "just in case it's a real one by co-incidence"
    – Steve
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 12:50

Imagine a real emergency happens at the same time.

  • Do you want an injured/hurt person to be moved in a hurry which might worsen their injuries?
  • Do you want rescue teams to arrive, and people cannot tell them which of the two emergencies is real and which is not?

Even worse, a drill that seems real might cause an emergency: In a real fire, people will not take the time to switch of the stove in the company-kitchen, or make sure the soldering-iron they used is put in a save place.

So you do want everyone to know that this is a drill.

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    Is this based on conjecture or on statistics?
    – guest
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 12:21
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    @guest, it seems like a reasonable conjecture to me.
    – Steve
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 13:19
  • @Steve: No matter how reasonable, it would be good to know if this is what in reality happens. There are (or used to be?) unannounced fire drills, so people would (hopefully) have evaluated if they are dangerous (and if announces fire drills are more or less dangerous). Even if nobody ever evaluated this, it would be nice to know that the answer is a conjecture and not based on statistics.
    – guest
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 13:24
  • @guest, yes I agree with you there, that it would be interesting to have specific information. I can't say I recall ever experiencing an unannounced drill myself, but I can't immediately think of anything that is achieved by an unannounced drill that isn't achieved by an announced one, other than to undermine the expectation that an unannounced sounding of the alarm is very credibly a real emergency. Who could again take seriously a manager who stands up and announces "clear out; this is not a drill", when it turns out it was in fact a drill, just not one about which he had been informed?
    – Steve
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 13:49
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    @Steve: I agree with you here. However, I have heard of three specific institutions (a student housing, a refugee home and an university chemistry department) where fire alarms were so common (and there was no real emergency) that people would just "ignore" them - you would "catch" those "ignoring" people onl with an unannounced drill. (Indeed, I worked in the refugee house - when the fire alarm came, I was supposed to first turn off the alarm, then go through the building to find the kitchen with unattended food on the stove). Noone left the building when the alarm came.
    – guest
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 15:24

I come to the same conclusion as others, you should tell them it is a drill. However, I think another argument may be useful.

Consider what you can tell the person:

  • Yes - They now know there is no fire
  • No - You just lied to them
  • I can't tell you - A rude way of saying "yes." If there was a fire, you would say "no it is not a drill" and you know it.
  • Something vague. This is probably better than refusing to tell them anything, but its still not something you would do in a real fire situation.
  • I don't know - A lie, but perhaps less bad.

So really, if you boil it down, there's really a "yes" branch, a "no" branch, and an "I don't know" branch. We can talk about small semantics for the vague answers, but really its a yes/no/dontknow.

Now, ask yourself, why did they ask this question? Or, perhaps a more pointed phrasing, what are they going to do with the information they receive?

I'd argue that anyone who asks is uncomfortable with not knowing the answer. Rather obvious, since they're asking, but worth pointing out. This might be an idle-curiousity like question, where where they're just a little uncomfortable. Or it might be a life and death issue, and they need to know the best information available before they do something risky. If someone needs their medicine, whether or not they run back into the building depends strongly on whether they believe this is just a casual drill or an actual emergency. These are people who will ask if it is a drill, and indeed may ask to be notified of the drill beforehand so that they can have their medicine prepared and ready.

Do you know which case it is? The answer is almost certainly no. It would be very surprising to me if you could perfectly ascertain what they plan to do with that information. Lying to them could have very dramatic consequences.

In the military, everybody knows that something is a drill when it happens. It is announced very loudly. Why? In the military, people have access to firearms. Firearms at the low end, and advanced missiles at the high end... or worse. And these are people who are expected to act in very extreme circumstances, where these weapons could indeed need to be used. So everybody knows whether this is a drill, or the real thing.

Now, if it makes you uncomfortable that you are spoiling the drill by telling them the truth, consider resolving that discomfort in a post-mortem. Tell them the truth during the drill, so that they know. Then, in a post-mortem after the drill, ask them how their behavior would have changed if you had said "no, this is not a drill." Get them thinking about that.

I remember an active shooter drill where the people I was around were, dare I say, cocky about it. They suggested they'd do some rather outlandish things to oppose an active shooter. In a post-mortem, we were asked whether we'd have done anything different if we didn't know if it was a drill or not.

The next active shooter drill resulted in people doing things that were more consistent with, say, an embassy in an active shooter drill. No flashy heroics that time.

  • There's another branch: e.g. "we have to evacuate / follow the plan [if there is one] in the same way regardless of whether it's a real fire or a drill.. so let's get moving!" Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 20:50
  • @seventyeightist That's the situation we get to when we realize we do not need to know if its a drill or emergency. And I agree, that's where we want it to get. However, if at any point, someone feels they need to know the difference, it is very important that they get the correct difference -- before they accidentally hurt someone or others based on faulty information.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 0:14
  • Not really the same as a fire drill, but it reminds me of the rules for practicing CPR. You never practice CPR on another person at full strength, because you can do things like crack ribs when doing CPR properly. If you're drilling CPR, you know it. You either are pulling the compressions, or you are using an obviously not-living-human test dummy designed to permit full compressions.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 0:15

Can you avoid the question?

I once worked at a small private college (maybe 15 classrooms), and we had the fire alarm go off. This wasn't a pre-planned drill. Turns out, it was because of a microwave overcooking food next door (in the same building), and our fire alarm was linked to theirs. We weren't planning to have the first evacuation. Nor the next three times that it happened in a couple of months.

As it also turned out, there was one other detail that wasn't quite right. The fire alarm was loud. As in, ear-piercingly loud. Unintentionally too loud.

Everyone's reaction was the same. Hear a very loud sound. Notice the flashing lights on the fire alarm units mounted on the wall (with a handle that says "pull here in case of fire" to start the alarm). By the second or third buzz, realize that the repeated buzzes are not going to stop. Place a hand over each ear. Then evacuate. No attempts to start a discussion asking questions to a leader who literally has hands over his ears. Instead, just get out, as soon as safely possible, because even with ears covered, the sound was still very loud, possibly even a bit painfully loud. Everyone wanted to get outside, and 50+ feet away from the building, just to get away from the unpleasant experience of being exposed to an uncomfortably loud sound.

Perhaps especially since this ended up happening two or three times over the next 10 weeks, the equipment was inspected and it was found that the sound was louder than it should have been. (After all, causing hearing loss is undesirable.) So you'd probably want to aim for a bit lower volume than what I described. But, if you can find some volume that is still loud enough to be unpleasant, you might not get people trying to ask such silly questions in between the audible buzzers. They'll want to leave on their own.

  • I know this doesn't actually answer the question of what to say. However, other answers did so well. I'm adding this answer to try to solve an XY problem, as a way to act ahead of time to avoid the undesired situation.
    – TOOGAM
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 11:36
  • As it turns out, the evacuation ended up being instructional. People who went out the back then walked to the parking lot out front, which was fine and sensible, but they should have stayed some distance away from the building while doing so. Such issues were only became clear after an evacuation showed that the natural thing to do was a wrong thing to do.
    – TOOGAM
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 11:36

How about "there's an emergency evacuation in progress, and I can't devote time to a question-and-answer session right now"?

Better still if you can get that printed on your fire warden's tabard so you don't have to spend time saying it.

  • 3
    This is not even faster than 'Yes, let's move' and would actually invite further discussion. I did not downvote as printing something like 'No Discussion' on your shirt may not be a bad idea since people can read this before starting a discussion. Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 20:24
  • 1
    @DennisJaheruddin, I agree, this is definitely a poor answer. Being snarky or evasive during an evacuation, to questions that can already be answered simply and honestly with a yes or no, is not at all appropriate.
    – Steve
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 11:16

"I can't tell you. I'm evacuating now."

Outside, or after the drill, refer questions to the people who decided not to tell.

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