All fired up

7th April 2000 at 01:00
You've done the drill countless times - sometimes at midnight. And yet when the real thing happens, no one takes any notice...

A small fire broke out recently in our empty gymnasium during the last lesson of the day. It was probably caused by an electrical fault and the smoke alarm did its job. Its subsequent incessant wail should have prompted the school to carry out its well-rehearsed fire drill - a drill repeated regularly and efficiently every term. But when there was a real fire, everything we were drilled to learn appeared to be forgotten.

Teachers hate fire drills. Although we may be secretly briefed as to the exact minute when it will start, the law of fire drills states that this is also the exact moment when the riotous Year 10 class will be paying rapt attention for the first time ever. Second, the student grapevine always knows the exact timing. This means that pupils will point out, quite correctly, that the work you have just set will never be completed before the drill starts, so why should they bother starting it?

When the fire bell does go, you quieten the excited students and tell them to leave everything behind and follow the clearly marked exit signs in silence. This gives the irritating, disorganised boy who has managed to forgetmisplace his books more often than he has managed to bring them to your class the opportunity to announce loudly that if you do not allow him to take his books he will sue you and the school for the loss of earnings should he fail his GCSEs. He will also be the one who notices - and advertises loudly - that you have taken your own bag to the muster point, contrary to your own strict instructions.

Once outside, crocodiles of chattering students head towards the muster points, usually the playground or the school field. Here, various members of the senior management team either direct operations from a handy vantage point using a megaphone in some modern day homage to Wellington at Waterloo or, more ludicrously, carry out uniform checks. Would they really punish a slightly singed, sooty student if there were a real emergency?

Fire drills in a boarding school bring more problems. Staff here correctly surmise that a fire could happen in the middle of the night - and therefore regularly choose this time for drills. Resident masters are then presented with the dress code problem. Are one's nightclothes appropriate to be seen in? Is a dressing gown a better bet? Should one actually get dressed properly, wasting time if it is a real fire? And what would the school think you were doing to require being fully dressed at 12am?

This higlights the psychological problem of the fire drill: everybody knows it isn't for real, so what you are wearing is actually a higher priority than the drill itself. The drill becomes a legal necessity and is taken less seriously.

Back to our real fire. I wasn't teaching and was surprised by the sound of fire engines wailing in the distance. I followed the sound of excited chatter to a science lab overlooking the gym. There, amused science teachers were pointing at wisps of smoke escaping from the roof. They remarked in a jovial way that at least the powers-that-be could not blame the chemistry department this time. I went outside to the school field, the muster station. It was empty except for a few children rushing to get home earlier than usual. I was confused and asked a colleague what was going on.

"There's a fire in the gym," he said before changing the conversation to the subtleties of the exam timetable. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a boy enter the main building. I rushed after him. The fire alarm was deafening.

"Where are you going?" I yelled. "There's a fire."

"I know, it's in the gym. I've come to get my bag."

"Get out!" I yelled, only to see 20 other students doing the same. I walked into the staffroom. There, to my astonishment, sat most of the staff, drinking tea as normal, looking irritated by the alarm bells. One department was trying to have its weekly meeting.

"There's a fire," I said as calmly as I could.

"Yes, it's in the gym," said someone. "Shouldn't we be doing something?" I said.

"Well, if you know a way of turning that damn alarm off, you could do us all a favour."

I gave up and had a cup of tea myself. But it made me think. I thought about the legend of Nero fiddling while Rome burned and wondered if the tale had been misconstrued. Was Nero relaxed because he too knew that the fire was only in the Roman equivalent of the gym? I also began to wonder about the point of having regular drills if, at the moment when they should be implemented, everybody ignored them.

I calmed down later; accepting that flaws happen in any well-planned system and that we are all human. No one was hurt, the gym was out of action for a while - water damage from the fire hoses was the biggest problem. I reminded myself that if one person is saved after following something they learned on a fire drill, then the drills are worth doing - even if we can't escape the fact that we are unable to make people believe in something they know isn't for real or a danger to themselves.

The author, who teaches inSurrey, wishes to remainanonymous

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