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Five ways to avoid the Fawlty Towers fire drill debacle

John Cleese and the Fawlty Towers team are extremely good at injecting hilarious farce into otherwise ordinary situations. I laugh out loud every time I watch any episode, including the episode where Basil Fawlty incompetently conducts a fire drill (This is the sixth episode of the first series entitled The Germans).

As the hilarity grows and the confusion increases, though, there is an important message underneath the slapstick. In between the drill and the actual fire that Manuel starts in his panic, Basil Fawlty believes the 'ordeal' to be over and says: “Well that ought to keep the fire department happy for another six months. I do not know why we bother!” When a drill is conducted the way he has done it, he is right to wonder its use, as the exercise did no good for anyone.

When you are starting and even once you are running a business, procedures such as a drill can feel superfluous to your core business practices and can be easily overlooked, but when they are done in the right way they are essential to safety in premises that hold more than a handful of people.

A fire drill is not conducted for the fire department; it is not done to keep anyone off your back (although having evidence of regular drills will do that). The main purpose of the drill is a rehearsal. When you have more than a couple of people to co-ordinate, a crisis is never the time to work out who should do what. If everyone knows what they are doing in advance – emergency procedures can be carried out with minimal or no communication so that everyone is safe and any damage is minimised.

Basil made a number of crucial mistakes during his attempt, which could lead to disaster if made in the real world.

1) Confusion over the alarm

Basil correctly alerted everyone to the time of the fire drill, but when he accidentally set off the burglar alarm a few minutes before the scheduled drill, everyone responded to that as if it were the fire alarm.

It is very important that everyone that spends any time at your business premises knows the sound of the fire alarm and knows what they need to do on hearing it. It should not be possible to misunderstand an alarm. A voice alarm explaining that this is a fire alarm and to make way to the nearest emergency exit is the best way to ensure this, especially if you run a public building that expects many visitors such as a hotel or theatre who will never have participated in your fire drill.

2) No one knew why they were doing it

As discussed, a fire drill has a purpose to rehearse a crisis to ensure that all your employees know what to do in an emergency. In this Fawlty Towers episode, Polly confirms her responsibility during the drill with Basil but then questions what would happen if she is not present during an actual fire. Basil responds that they will have to work that out at the time. It is oversights such as this which can be highlighted and addressed during a drill which is better than discovery during a real emergency.

Basil, the manager conducting the drill, needs to understand the purpose so that he can pass that understanding to employees. The drill should be based on an emergency plan that covers all likely scenarios based on the number of visitors, number of employees present and the location of any fire to ensure that everyone can be evacuated to safety with minimal or no communication. Different employees should have different responsibilities and areas to evacuate that have been previously worked out so long as it is safe for them to do so.

The drill should be conducted while everyone is going about their normal business rather than standing around in the foyer waiting for it to start as they were in this episode. This ensures that everything they learn is learned in the appropriate context.

3) No one reacted to the fire alarm when a fire occurred

All public buildings should now be alarmed and an increasing number of homes have smoke alarms at the very least. Unfortunately, false alarms are a little too common; the sound of an alarm does not often get the reaction it should because most of the alarms we hear are false alarms.

One of Basil's classic mistakes in this episode is to sound the alarm too many times. He sounds the burglar alarm twice and the fire alarm once to demonstrate the difference in sound. When Manuel then accidentally sets the kitchen on fire and the alarm goes off for real, everyone ignores it. To make things worse Basil locks Manuel in the burning kitchen as he thinks he is still playing along with the drill and switches off the fire alarm as he does not believe there is a real fire.

This is the most dangerous effect of false alarms. Every time an alarm goes off it should be investigated. For some businesses, it is appropriate to give yourself a minute or so response time by setting up a two-tier alarm that warns employees there may be an evacuation and when the second tier of the alarm kicks in everyone is ready to carry out their responsibilities without question. Every time the alarm sounds it should be treated seriously and this is a culture you should promote.

If you experience a lot of false alarms then they can be prevented and you need to seek advice.

4) Basil could not use the break glass call point

Once Basil realised there actually was a fire, he needed to set the alarm off again. By this time he had lost his key and had difficulty breaking the glass.

It is important that all your employees know how to set off an alarm should they ever need to. Call points are not usually break glass anymore, most can be done by bending a plastic sheet in front of a button which is very easy, but people are not thinking clearly in a crisis so offering your employees an opportunity to do this at their leisure at some point is worth doing.

After a call point has been used it can be reset with a key so it is wise to know exactly where the key is at all times and also where at least one backup is kept. You need this close to hand in order to reset your alarm system as you do not want to dilute its effectiveness on your employees and therefore your visitors.

5) Could not use the fire extinguisher

Very similarly, all employees should have some experience using a fire extinguisher. When Basil tries to use it he manages to spray himself in the face and slip up on the puddle and give himself concussion which really did not help him when later serving dinner to the Germans (while trying not to mention the war).

The fact is that drills will rehearse and instil in employee's minds when extinguishers should and shouldn't be used, what type should be used when and how to physically extinguish a fire.

While in hospital with his head wrapped in a bandage, Basil exclaims that fire extinguishers sit there for all that time and when you try to use them they just explode in your face. Again, the important message behind his incompetence is that it is his responsibility to ensure maintenance is regularly carried out on all fire extinguishers, not to keep the fire department from the door, but to ensure that they do actually work if they are required, in an emergency.

And so the most significant lesson to learn from Basil's debacle is to ensure that you and your employees are clear about the purpose of a fire drill. This will ensure the procedure is valued, taken seriously, that any wrinkles in your emergency procedures are discovered and ironed out, that you and your staff are best prepared for an emergency and that the likelihood of anyone getting harmed is significantly reduced or removed completely.


Author Bio:

Alex Gleeman works for Fire & Electrical Safety Limited, based in Milton Keynes who provide fire safety advice and services to businesses around Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire.

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