By Scott Cresswell, Emergency Management Consultant

My beautiful wife, Alexis, knows a thing or two about dancing. As a teacher and competitor, she has Salsa’d her way into a few State Championships, trying (without success) to teach me a few things along the way. Truthfully, I still can’t seem to get my feet in the right place at the right time – but I have learned a few things. It might surprise you to know that dancing has a LOT in common with Evacuation drills.

Learning a routine

Teaching a dance class involves training students to perform a choreography, where they learn the steps to the same music, and repeat it over and over again, until they get it right. Students feel good about themselves when they get it right. Evacuation planning has been taught in the same way. The normal evacuation exercise is planned, where everyone expects the alarms to be activated at a predetermined time, all the building occupants will walk out of the building and head to the Assembly Area as efficiently as possible. They will repeat this exercise every year, without change, because “normal” is easy to get right. The problem with this, is it doesn’t prepare us for what happens when ‘normal’ doesn’t occur.

Change the music

My wife uses the same song throughout the entire course, so that her dance students know what to expect, and what steps to take. I asked her what would happen if she changed the music part-way for their end-of-course assessment? Would they still be able to dance? Predictably, they would find it difficult to adapt, and the final result would likely be an unpleasant experience for the Dancers. Consider now how your organisation might respond after years of doing the same, predictable, evacuation drill, where nothing ever goes wrong, and everybody knows what to expect. How would your people react, if you suddenly changed the music? What if their normal Assembly Area became compromised? Or if the Chief Warden was attending an off-site emergency? Or if the weather was particularly nasty? Would your people still be able to dance?

Choreographies can’t teach you everything

Learning a dance routine is an important introductory method, but on it’s own it doesn’t teach students to Dance. It doesn’t teach them to listen to the beat and recognise what is happening around them. It certainly doesn’t teach them to improvise. If not carefully considered, evacuation drills can be the same. People need to know what to do when things don’t go to plan. So, consider changing the music by having an unannounced drill. Add in some mock casualties who need assistance to evacuate. Why not organise someone who refuses to evacuate, to see how your Wardens might react? No doubt, they might struggle. But they’ll also learn that evacuations aren’t a choreography, that sometimes the music changes, and that sometimes we need to try different moves. Most importantly, it will also prepare them for the actual event.

You can learn a choreography, or you can learn to dance. Tell us how you’ve changed the music by commenting below, or if you’d like to discuss this further, then reach out for a more in-depth chat.