Safety Trends: Holding Down The Fort

Disaster planning requires a straightforward approach to the threats a building faces.
Disaster planning requires a straightforward approach to the threats a building faces.

Safety Trends: Holding Down The Fort

Safety Trends: Holding Down The Fort

By Anne Cosgrove
Published in the April 2006 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Whether natural or manmade, an emergency event creates a crisis for a building, its occupants, and the organization’s ability to continue its operations. To what degree the crisis extends depends largely on the event itself, but facility managers can work to mitigate the effects by preparing their buildings and its occupants for an unexpected crisis.

For facility managers, the extent of their involvement in disaster planning and recovery may vary. One constant is their role in ensuring the buildings they oversee are in good condition and are prepared for an emergency event. By maintaining properties that are equipped to withstand high winds, large volumes of water, explosions, and other damaging forces, facility managers are key, not only in working to minimize property damage, but also in protecting occupants and facilitating recovery.

Building Protection

In its “Emergency Management Guide For Business & Industry,” the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides guidelines for virtually every aspect of disaster planning. Included in the Guide is information about protecting property in the event of an emergency. Issues include the structural integrity of the facility, the ability to shut down building systems, and the feasibility of arranging backup utilities.

Facility managers can assess the physical conditions of their buildings and surrounding properties in order to determine what steps need to be taken in order to create an effective plan. “A facility manager should look at the threats to a building in a layered approach from the exterior to the interior and from top to bottom,” says Barney Pelant, owner and director of Barney F. Pelant & Associates, a consulting firm for business continuity planning, based in Bloomingdale, IL.

The assessment should also take into account facility-specific factors, advises Pelant. These include possibly being located in a floodplain, having close proximity to a rail line, or being downwind from a toxic chemical plant.

Pelant says, “Begin the assessment at the property line and then move into the facility itself, in the context of possible threats. Begin the facility examination with the roof and work down over the building skin and to the foundation.”

FEMA also recommends checking foundations and walls for cracks or other openings. Facility managers should ensure that doors and windows are in good repair as well.

Applying window film adds a layer of defense against impacts from hurricane winds, explosion forces, and other threats. Window film made specifically for safety purposes is designed to keep the glass contained in between the layers of film, so even when the glass is in shards, the pieces are held in place (rather than being dispersed everywhere).

The ASTM International Standard E1996-05b addresses the conditions that exterior glazing and protective systems (such as window films) should withstand. Testing conducted by ASTM involves a 2′ x 4′ piece of lumber weighing 41⁄2 pounds and travelling at 208 miles per hour.

Marty Watts, president and CEO of Houston, TX-based V-Kool, says, “Over the past few years, a lot of our business has been in the Florida area because of the hurricane activity. Also, government buildings have been installing window film because of threats from terrorism.”

Pelant advises that once the assessment process moves to the interior, facility managers should start by looking at supporting roof structures, walls, and then floors. “The assessment should be continued in this manner until every aspect of the facility and its operations have been examined,” he says. “Along the way, facility managers will identify additional threats that will compound the risk to the next layer of the assessment.”

Behind The Scenes

Building systems are a huge part of a facility manager’s job as well. HVAC, fire, security, and utilities are all major parts of a building’s infrastructure, and during a disaster, they remain important concerns. These systems can even be the cause of the disaster—if a pipe bursts and creates flooding in the facility, for example.

The FEMA Guide advises that emergency call lists, as well as building and site maps, be readily available to handle utility and system shutdowns. Personnel should be aware of their individual responsibilities in this respect.

To provide backup power, facility managers should equip their sites with generators and fuel for up to 72 hours. Being prepared in this manner can address immediate building needs such as temporary lighting.

As an integral part of building infrastructure, HVAC systems can be vulnerable to foreign substances being introduced to interiors. Combustible gases and chemical and biological agents can be very dangerous, and their effects are exacerbated when transported throughout a building by the HVAC system. During a building assessment, facility managers should take into account fresh air intakes, advises Pelant.

Dennis Koehler, vice president, marketing and sales at Isonics Homeland Security and Defense Corporation in Atlanta, GA, says, “Some buildings have air intakes that are immediately accessible to people outside. In effect, these intakes can become the distributor for a substance that an individual introduces into the system.”

Isonics offers a detection system through which sensors are installed at strategic locations in the HVAC system. These sensors monitor the air for hazardous gases at low concentrations. If a sensor identifies the presence of a chemical or gaseous threat, it sends a message to a central control, which evaluates the measured concentration to determine if it exceeds an alarm threshold. If so, the alarm is triggered.

The system is able to alert the HVAC system so it can be shut down while other measures are taken to contain any threats to building occupants. “Every facility professional should look at how vulnerable the air intakes are for their buildings and think about how to protect them,” says Koehler. “Unfortunately, we are in a new environment, and we must be forward thinking, rather than react to something catastrophic.”

But chemical incidents can also be accidental. “Several months ago in the Carolinas, an ammonia tanker truck broke open, and it affected a two mile radius,” says Koehler. “People had to be evacuated, and some people died. Also, if a building is in proximity to a rail yard or rail line, that poses a threat if there is an accident involving chemical or toxic gases being released into the air.”

People Protection

After an assessment is performed and a plan is created, building management and first responders will be in the know. It is important for occupants to know what to do as well.

The plan for evacuation should be made known to all occupants. “A physical risk assessment assists in identifying any issues that need to be addressed in an evacuation plan,” says Pelant. “Also, in facilities with second and third shifts, often the first shift will know what to do, but the other people have not been informed.”

If circumstances require occupants to remain in the building, there are a number of factors to consider to ensure their safety. This includes where people will be housed and how to sustain them.

Sheltering locations should be determined, taking into account what the event may be. During a tornado, for instance, safe places include: small interior rooms without windows; hallways on the lowest floor away from doors and windows; rooms with reinforced concrete, brick, or block with no windows and a heavy concrete floor or roof system; and any protected area away from doors and windows. FEMA points out that rooms covered with flat, wide span roofs (such as gymnasiums or auditoriums) are not the safest havens.

Also, a sufficient supply of necessities should be on hand. FEMA and the American Red Cross recommend stocking supplies for the first 72 hours. Emergency supplies include food, water, portable lighting, a radio, and a first aid kit.

The Wornick Co., based in Cincinnati, OH, is a supplier of emergency meal kits. The meals, which have a two-year shelf life, are warmed with a self-heating pouch.

This contingency does not require much space when considered as part of the bigger picture of disaster planning. “Twelve of these meals are packed in a case that uses less than one cubic foot of space,” says Paul DuPont, director, new sales initiatives at The Wornick Co.

Staying In Touch Is A Must

In this world of constant communication, at no time is it more important than during an emergency. Facility managers should work with first responders in their municipalities to understand how those outside organizations work and find out what is expected of the facility during an emergency event.

Facility managers can address what is under their control to try and mitigate the effects on operations. An emergency contact list of essential personnel should be given to all people in the organization involved in an emergency response.

If a building suffers substantial damage, personnel may not be able to return to the site, or the communication infrastructure may be out. In order to conduct necessary communications in this scenario, facility managers can contract with firms that offer call forwarding or wireless technology services such as satellite telephones and microwave radios.

After The Fact

Of course, all the planning in the world will not safeguard against an intense hurricane or powerful explosion. In these cases, property damage is bound to happen, sometimes to a devastating level—as society has witnessed over the past few years.

When the time comes to assess the damage and start the recovery process, a support network is crucial. This can include a restoration company, which will assess building contents and structure and perform remediation. It is prudent to establish a relationship with such a company during planning to minimize the time elapsed from the onset of the disaster to the start of recovery.

Kim Crist, senior vice president of InStar Services of Fort Worth, TX, works with various types of facilities in disaster recovery. “We respond immediately,” she says. “If there is water damage, we start to dry out the building with water extraction. If the roof is gone, we put a temporary roof structure up. We also deal with building contents and do what is necessary to try to keep the business up and running, if possible.”

Gary Alexander, president of Alexander Wall Corporation, a property damage and disaster recovery specialist firm in Ronkonkoma, NY, says, “In an ideal situation, the facility manager most often plays the role of a stage director. He or she should be able to shout ‘action’ to set the recovery process into motion immediately.”

Ever Forward

A disaster plan is never really complete. New threats might arise, and facility infrastructure needs to be maintained. But shoring up the current plan is a good place to start.

“Upon completion of a facility assessment, the facility manager has a tremendous amount of information and recommendations which need to be organized into a meaningful set of action plans,” says Pelant. “At a minimum, this information should be able to be triaged into three levels of priority. For example, facility professionals can identify the actions that need to be taken immediately, secondarily, and those that can be deferred in the short-term.”

Facility managers know their buildings better than most anyone else. Their insight into disaster planning can help in all aspects of an emergency response.

Information from this article was gathered through interviews with Alexander, Crist, DuPont, Koehler, Pelant, and Watts. To download the “Emergency Management Guide For Business & Industry” from FEMA, visit this link

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