July 26, 2017

Stop Wasting Time on School Drills!

By Shannon Zaher

Depending on the state, your school may be conducting as many as 13 drills each school year. And that is a colossal waste of time. Because staff and administrators are forced to cram an inordinate amount of material, regulations, testing and more into each day, drills are often viewed as a necessary evil rather than an opportunity to improve emergency preparedness. The following drill tips and tools are designed to help make your drills more effective and a far better use of your time.

Drill Tip #1: You Can’t Rely on the Principal

First, let’s look at who is initiating drills. It’s either the principal or the assistant principal, right? When you think about specific school tragedies or even a typical scenario that could happen today such as smoke coming from the girl’s bathroom or a medical emergency in a classroom, is the principal always there?

There are numerous reasons so many perished in the Our Lady of the Elms fire in Chicago in 1958, including a building that was a firetrap, a fire that smoldered undetected for 15-30 minutes and overcrowded classrooms. However, the school’s policy that the fire alarm should only be activated with the permission of the principal, made a horrific situation worse. On that day, the principal was substituting for an ill teacher in a classroom far from the fire and could not be found. Eventually, one of the teachers did activate the alarm.

With many lessons learned from this tragedy, it’s surprising schools still rely on the principal to activate an alarm. If drills are training staff to expect the principal to initiate an alarm, but in reality, the principal is not always, or even typically, in the location of the emergency, why only training the principal to perform this function?  Drill tip bottom line: Train all staff to initiate a drill or alarm.

Drill Tip #2 – Stop Going Through the Motions

Drill (n.) – any strict, methodical, repetitive or mechanical training, instruction or exercise.

Certainly staff and students need to know the procedures associated with various types of emergencies and they must be able to act accordingly if ever faced with a real situation…in the heat of the moment, adrenaline racing. Yet, how do you know you’ve achieved this goal if you aren’t practicing with some “fight or flight” elements built into our drills?

Consider how much more effective your next drill can be if you follow this approach: Your principal walks into a teacher’s classroom and reads the following scenario, “You are in the middle of teaching a class when you and several of your students notice smoke and flames coming through the ceiling tiles just over your head.”

It is likely both the teacher and students would get a bit of adrenaline rushing through their veins and they would be far more engaged in the situation. Using realistic scenarios such as a gas leak, an irate parent or a bomb threat lets everyone know you’re preparing for very real situations. Drill tip bottom line: Providing staff and students with a specific scenario gives context to the drill and their actions.

Drill Tip #3 – Looking Good on Paper is Not Enough

The school safety plan includes, among other important information, the procedures everyone follows during the various types of emergencies. With a team of school administrators, first responders, teachers and more, the procedures are spelled out in detail. Everything looks great on paper.

Read more about safety plan creation in this blog post.

The purpose of safety drills is to test your leadership team’s safety plan. Does what you thought would work during a lockdown drill actually work? Using scenarios and staff to initiate your drills will give you a more accurate assessment of the fidelity of your plan. And if something goes awry during a drill…document it, fix it, communicate it and practice it again. Far better to catch it now!

Who knows, it could be something as simple as vocabulary. One district in Arizona learned their high school used different terms for drills than their middle school. Incoming freshmen were confused and unsure how to respond.

Michael Dorn, the executive director of Safe Havens International, is committed to helping schools enhance their emergency preparedness.

We recently sponsored a webinar through School Planning & Management featuring Michael and his presentation on safety plan fidelity. The archived session is based on security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools and post-incident assistance for several hundred school crisis events. Drill tip bottom line: Use drills to identify gaps in your safety plan.

Free Tools You Can Use…Today

It is our goal to help you create a safe learning environment for your students and staff. We encourage you to use the audio scenarios created in conjunction with Michael Dorn. You can download them here and begin using them to initiate your next drill.

Combine these drill tips with ALL the tools and make your drills worthy of the honor roll!

Share your comments

Leave a Reply

11 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
11 Comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Alexander Garey

Drill Tip #1 is fairly important. I think it would definitely have to be something that is prearranged though especially since you wouldn’t want to cause some panic amongst administration even if they aren’t the ones calling to have the drill.

Chad Leggett

Most of the time drills are done right when class is about th start or end. Very few times do we do drills when it is not convenient, like during lunch time. Drills need to be done at all times, not just the ones where we know our procedures and systems are fool-proof.

Drill Tip # 1 is so important. Many teachers are very reluctant to initiate critical emergency responses. Using the scenario drill deck with our Emergency Preparedness Committee is really helping that group to understand the need for every staff member to have the authority to initiate emergency response procedures. We will be using the scenarios in larger groups to help everyone to have the confidence and knowledge to initiate a response.

Jason G

Love the idea of having others in the building initiate drills. Really makes all responsible in the Safety of the school.

Sean Dunlap

I feel drills at all different times of the day are important. Need to mix up the times, and scenarios. Also it needs to be a surprise to staff and students. This puts them in the real time “mood” and makes them think on their toes. I also like asking “What would you do” questions to random staff in the hall ways. There is no perfect way to drill, but if you are drilling it beats not drilling or preparing for anything at all.


Changing drill times, as well as notification methods is so important. It’s when we become complacent that accidents, and worse, tend to happen. Encouraging occupants to use alternate routes is important as well.

Brady Woolsey

It is something new to allow anyone to activate a drill or alarm but it makes sense

I’m actually reading ‘The Fire That Never Goes Out’ by one of the survivors of that fire! This is a great blog!


I think it is important to have drills at different times to ensure we are prepared given any condition.

Richard Kaliszewski

We have had 1st graders practice pulling the fire alarm before to initiate a drill. At first the usual reaction by a student is “can I really pull this?” YES! They need to know what it feels like to put the school into alarm. I think that there is still a stigma about only having leadership pull the alarm or alert the emergency response team, however the sooner the alarm is initiated the better, even if that means a student stepping into action.


In what school is only the principal allowed to sound the fire alarm? There are pull stations everywhere.