Do You Know the Difference Between Life Safety Drills and Exercises?

Blog Post created by jmontes Employee on Mar 6, 2020

Recently, two teachers’ unions joined forces with Everytown USA, a gun violence prevention advocacy group. They released a position statement against active shooter exercises, featuring realistic simulations, in schools; and highlighted the psychological and emotional impact on students that participated in those simulations. There have been reports of workplace exercises where occupants of buildings have also suffered harm as a result of realistic simulations.


The Everytown USA statement closely resembles one produced by the National Association of School Resource Officers and The Association of School Phycologists (NASRO/NASP with one big differentiation: NASRO/NASP made a distinction between exercises and drills. Why is this important? Because they are considered two very different things in codes and standards.

NFPA has several documents (NFPA 101, NFPA 99, NFPA 1600, NFPA 3000, and more) that talk about drills and exercises. Although the codes are different, they all recognize that drills differ from exercises. An exercise as defined in NFPA 1600 Standard on Continuity, Emergency, and Crisis Management is a process to assess, train, practice, and improve performance in an entity. It’s important to note that it says entity, not occupants.

None of the NFPA codes or standards currently define what the term “drill” means but the term “fire drill” has its own section in NFPA 101 Life Safety Code. In Chapter 4 of NFPA 101, and in its explanatory language in Annex A, it is clearly laid out that the intent of drills is to familiarize occupants with using different egress routes and practicing drills at different times. NFPA 101 advises to use simulated conditions, and the explanatory annex clarifies that this reference applies to using the emergency egress alarm to signal the drill; practicing at different times of the day or different days of the week; and to searching for a secondary exit, if the closest one is blocked.

Both drills and exercises are effective practices, and should be used to keep our schools and communities safe.
Drills focus on the occupants of a building and are meant to teach a skill or action by following and practicing a set of instructions. As an example, a fire drill is designed to teach occupants of a building to egress the building quickly and safely. During fire drills you can gain additional skills by learning to check for the nearest exit to you, by seeking an alternative exit, and moving to relocation areas. Most of us are familiar with drills because we have experienced them on a regular basis from kindergarten through adulthood.

School drills have proven to be historically successful. In fact, the last fire-related deaths recorded at a school were in 1958. What’s great about drills is you are learning a skill (egress or shelter in place) that can be applied in different scenarios. Egress knowledge, for example, is important during a fire but can also be applied during an active shooter incident. Shelter in place is key during a hostile event, but it can also be useful during natural disasters, air quality issues and other emergencies. The skills taught to occupants during drills can typically be applied when direction is given or when occupants are faced with decisions.

Drills should be conducted in accordance with locally adopted codes, like NFPA 101. The proposed 2021 edition of NFPA 101 requires an emergency egress drill for each month that school is in session. Where allowed by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), those monthly egress drills can be changed from egress to another form of preparedness drill, twice per school year. This was done in order to give schools more flexibility and to not have emergency drills take up an exorbitant amount of time each month. These guidelines are minimum requirements; schools and AHJs may choose to do more, if they see fit.

An exercise applies to the entity. Exercises are designed to simulate hazards, conditions, and responses to dynamic threats. They give participants an opportunity to test preparedness measures, decision-making, and necessary skills, among other things. An exercise is much more dynamic and complicated than a drill and usually serves building and life safety authorities the most. By simulating a hazard and responding to it, the exercise creates opportunities to test procedures for access, way-finding, threat remediation, rendering aid, and relocating injured parties out of a building. For example, an active shooter exercise may be used to assess communication between school leaders and responders; determine responders’ abilities to navigate buildings; gage how aid is provided; examine the functions of unified command; and analyze the procedures for community notifications.

Like drills, exercises can improve an entity’s readiness and reinforce critical decision-making skills, while under pressure. Exercises help responders get familiar with the intricacies of buildings. They provide a means to practice communication methods and elicit feedback on what plans, policies, and procedures worked - and what didn’t go so well.

NFPA 3000 Standard for an Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response Program requires that facilities who have been deemed by their AHJ to be at risk for an active shooter or hostile event exercise all, or part of their emergency operations plan, no less than once annually. NFPA 3000 explains that the exercise is designed to be coordinated with community response partners. The exercise can be a tabletop or functional exercise; in other words, occupants don’t need to be involved in any way. NFPA 3000 further specifies that training the occupants of a building on their expected actions be part of an emergency plan (i.e. drills).

Understanding the differences between the terms drill and exercise can help re-frame modern day conversations about safety. Here are the key takeaways.


  1. There is a difference between drills and exercises!
  2. Keep the occupants of your buildings and your building’s community informed of your efforts!
  3. Follow the codes!
  4. Work with your AHJ!


And remember, NFPA codes and standards are designed to make our communities safer. If you have questions related to building and life safety, contact an NFPA staff member today.




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