My wife and I were visiting someone at a nursing home in New Port Richey, FL a couple weeks ago. An incident occurred during our visit that made me wonder if safety training is all it is really cracked up to be. Yet at the same time, it made me very aware of how critical your employees can be in an emergency. 

We were sitting in the dining area chatting when the fire alarm suddenly started chiming. No one moved, or seemed overly concerned, even after a voice on the PA said, “Fire in the beauty parlor. Fire in the beauty parlor.” Right after the PA announcement, a woman, who I presumed to be the Home Administrator, walked quickly by holding a fire extinguisher. 30 seconds or so later, another employee sauntered by with a fire extinguisher, as did another about a minute later. I wouldn’t describe these employees actions as representing any state of significant urgency. Either this was clearly a drill, or the employees at this place were not all that fond of their beauty parlor.

Five minutes later the “first responders” were returning with their fire extinguishers, when the administrator walked by us and opened the kitchen door right behind us. Her voice was strong and terse, but not mean in any fashion. She said “Hey, where were you? Didn’t you hear the fire alarm? We had a fire in the beauty parlor and you guys didn’t show up!” 

I hate it when that happens. So we all died in a fictitious fire, but dinner would not be late.

This was an unusual exercise. Normally one would expect fire preparedness to include an element of evacuation of the homes residents. In this case, it appears they opted for a process of containment, sacrificing the beauty parlor so that others may live. Or, as more aptly demonstrated, the drill has become so routine that the new plan is to let the employees and residents burn to death while everyone ignores the warnings.

I have often wondered about this phenomenon. Most of us have likely been in a public place when a fire alarm goes off. In my experience, everyone usually remains just where they are, either ignoring the irritating noise or looking like confused sheep waiting for someone to develop an action plan. I wonder if it is possible to become so desensitized to the very things designed to save us that we ignore them at our own peril. In other words, in the absence of real, visible danger, do these safety training sessions just serve to act as a boy who cried wolf? 

The interesting thing about this is that there is evidence that, even in the face of real, visible danger, people do not react the way you think they would. Studies done of some fatal air crashes showed that often passengers who perished might have survived if they had reacted in time. One study included interviews with passengers of the worst air disaster in history, when two 747’s collided on the runway in the Canary Islands, killing 583 people. Survivors recall exiting one of the planes after the collision, but observing many passengers just sitting, looking unsure as to what they should be doing. Despite fire and flames, they did not react, and perished in the blaze. 

Let me assure you, if you are ever on a flight with me that catches fire on the ground, you better hope I have reflective tape attached to my fanny, because that is all you are going to see of me…..

I have been in a couple situations related to fire alarms where the result is entirely different. In those rare instances we were quickly hustled out the door to safety until the building could be checked and given an all clear. In those instances it was indeed well trained employees who responded in the manner in which they had been taught. 

So what is the difference? I am not a safety expert, and indeed I hope some weigh in with comments, but I have a hunch that it lies within the focus of the training effort. In our nursing home example, employees were asked to go through a routine practice to ensure the safety of their residents in an indirect manner; by protecting the building first. Their focus was not on the end result, but rather an intermediary step. 

To the contrary, in the examples where well trained staff evacuated the building with no regard for saving it, the end results were much more clear. 

People, on the whole, need to be led when in an emergency outside their personal environment. They need people to direct and advise them, they need leaders who are well trained with a clear mission. Your employees can and should be those leaders, if focused on the correct end result. It makes much more sense, and will hold their attention better the next time the beauty parlor bursts into flames.

Unless of course, you prefer your residents roasty toasty. 

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