Fire-Drilling Your Internal Communications


In India fire-drills conducted by organizations are considered a necessary but a drab affair. With thousands of staff working in high rise buildings fire safety is a priority and standards needs to be explained effectively.

Most organizations have a health and safety officer who interfaces with a third party vendor to organize demos periodically and share preventive measures and safety to-dos.

The onus of getting drilling the message is however left to the building management and office leadership.

Stay on course

I attended a memorable fire drill recently and it got me thinking of opportunities for internal communicators in driving home messages with audiences.

The drill instructor stood on the podium cajoling staff to assemble quickly as they walked in. Five minutes before the fire alarm sounded and the emergency rescue team members escorted people out and directed them to the basement through staircases. To ensure people headcount matched staff needed to stand in the space allotted to their respective floors. His presence –  the bright blue cap, the smart blazer, the sunshades and the megaphone ensured people knew who ran the show. He had planned the event meticulously – the ambulance van beside the podium, the safe area to demonstrate the fire extinguishing act, his troop of volunteers to support his mission. As a regular on the crisis management and fire drill circuit he anticipated a mellow response. He briefed the audience on his track record with the city’s fire brigade before he began the drill.

Presence and credibility are crucial to gain respect. Know your onions to get a seat at the table.

He took the opportunity to set context while people settled down. Aware that fire drills are considered a spoilsport to work he drew examples from recent fire accidents to anchor the event. Carlton Towers in Bangalore recently witnessed a devastating fire and many people lost their lives. The investigations revealed poor safety standards and lacuna in emergency planning. He didn’t mince words as he made sure he overcame the cynicism around. He castigated some who casually strolled to the demonstration spot indicating the importance of time in a crisis situation.

Anchor your messages to events and scenarios your audience can relate to.

 By sharing the time taken to evacuate people, which fell short of the target, he also called out that safety is everyone’s’ ownership and a few seconds can decide the fate of many. Therefore while people may have taken care of their safety first they also needed to look out for others, especially pregnant ladies and differently abled individuals.

Make your stakeholders a part of the process and responsible for their communication.

Although watching demonstrations can give you a fair idea of what is expected from you, your ability to perform when you are expected to is strengthened when you put the theory into practice. Therefore, he invited people from the audience to participate for techniques such as lifting injured people, creating a make-shift stretcher with a rope and rescuing people in emergencies. He rewarded those who volunteered in the exercises and kept the audiences engaged with references from Bollywood and cricket, two very popular themes that India can relate to.

Show and tell, guide and coach so that your audience ‘gets’ it.

He also drew our attention to fire signs on floors. We usually tend to take them for granted but in a fire those are indicators which can guide up through thick smoke and take us to safety.

Sign post progress so that stakeholders know where you are heading.

Last but not least he personally thanked the office head and personally called out the names of the emergency response  team members (trained volunteers from the office) to recognize their work.

Recognize the effort stakeholders take to improve communication. It may not be their day-job however much you wish it were!

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