By Aaron Saak and Thomas Connell
From the February 2017 Issue
In the event of an emergency such as a fire, severe weather, or active shooter scenario, it’s critical to have a tried-and-true preparedness and response plan to help protect the safety and well-being of the people involved. To prepare for these situations, facility management leaders must devise and implement an emergency plan that centers on the needs of their facilities and their communities. As part of this process, facility executives should be cognizant of the potential hazards distinct to their environments and ensure the emergency plan is realistic and provides full coverage for a variety of potential events.
Roles and responsibilities must be assigned to specific stakeholders within the plan, in order to establish a clear chain of command. Managers should also take into account what technology might be most beneficial for the plan and the various participants and stakeholders. Furthermore, regular testing and updates are critical parts of the preparedness process, as they help identify execution gaps that may interfere with safety.
Conducting A Risk Assessment
By starting with a risk assessment of existing processes and programs, facility managers can more thoroughly understand the potential threats, the current level of preparedness, and the improvements that are needed. These three key factors become the foundation of the emergency response plan. The necessary assessments can be conducted through research, surveys, test phases, and other methods. There are three primary reasons to conduct a risk assessment:
- Evaluate credible threats and capabilities.
- Identify vulnerabilities and evaluate consequences of those gaps.
- Document the risk assessment findings in a report, along with recommendations for next steps.
After identifying potential risk scenarios, two performance objectives should be kept in mind.
The first objective is life safety and the protection of life against immediate threats. An example of an action to advance this objective is informing people that there has been an incident and that they need to evacuate.
The second objective is stabilizing the incident, whether it is an isolated situation or a broader threat. This could entail using a spill kit to contain and clean up a toxic spill or cooperating with the authorities in taking an active shooter into custody. While it may seem obvious, protecting lives in an emergency should be the main priority for facility managers, before tackling building-related concerns.
With these two objectives identified and evaluated, facility management teams can then begin to develop a comprehensive emergency plan that addresses potential threats and risks.
Developing A Successful Emergency Plan
The plan must extend beyond just the facility—it should encompass the wider community as well. Consider, for example, how an emergency at an office building could affect the residential neighborhood that surrounds it, or a school that is located down the road. Facility managers must recognize that an emergency situation could spread beyond their building to the greater community. Therefore, it’s essential to involve appropriate community leaders and members in the planning process as well as internal leaders and stakeholders. An excellent resource is the Local Emergency Planning Commission (LEPA). Under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), these LEPCs must develop an emergency response plan, review the plan at least annually, and provide information to citizens about hazardous materials in the community.
This community collaboration often includes representatives from emergency services, such as the fire department, police department, and civic leaders of local organizations. The additional input may prompt facility managers to include processes or technologies in the plan that weren’t initially considered.
An emergency plan must apply to many types of anticipated situations, from a common incident like a medical emergency to something catastrophic like a hurricane or active shooter. To address this wide range of possibilities when developing a plan, facility managers should use a logical, versatile and repeatable process like a checklist of key considerations and corresponding courses of action. Execution procedures should not vary, regardless of the scale of an event, to help avoid oversights when addressing smaller incidents. Every emergency situation should be handled with careful attention to prevent further disruption and damage.
Clear communication is crucial in every emergency. This enables those at the top of the chain of command to communicate with everyone in the facility and the surrounding community regarding the situation and the appropriate action that should be taken. This hearkens back to the primary performance objective of an emergency plan: life safety and the protection of life against immediate threats.
When planning the chain of command, facility managers should identify certain people with specific responsibilities and assign at least one backup to provide redundancy in case the primary contact isn’t present or is otherwise preoccupied. There are many options when it comes to choosing the right technologies to support the communications process during an emergency. It’s best to deploy multi-layered emergency communications solutions, and to consider that advanced technologies like addressable fire alarm speakers can deliver targeted messages to specific areas within a building, helping keep building occupants informed and up-to-date as an event unfolds.
Training Stakeholders, Testing Plans
After an emergency plan is put in place, all involved parties must be trained on that plan, even if they don’t have an active role assigned specifically to them. It is important that every individual who may be affected in an emergency is familiar with the plan’s structure to help facilitate smooth execution. And, stakeholders from the community should be involved in both the creation and testing of the plan; facility managers need to bring in those outside authorities to help optimize the plan.
The last piece of the puzzle is to exercise the emergency plan—and to do so on a regular basis. However, this does not mean that facilities should simulate the same type of emergency in each exercise. A schedule of exercises should include a variety of situations, from large to small. In addition, the plan should be flexible over time and adjusted as needed based on feedback following drills and emergency events.
Testing the plan can take many forms, including a live drill with role-playing or a tabletop exercise. A tabletop exercise may come in handy as a first step for testing plans for more serious situations, such as an active shooter threat. This is because there are so many elements in play that the plan may initially be confusing without a wider perspective.
During these drills, weak links will become obvious and deficiencies can be corrected. Testing also provides an opportunity for people to comment on their role and perform a self-analysis for things they may have missed. The repetition of the testing of an emergency plan is key to its success. Facilities will want to try to test as many scenarios with their plan as possible, finding common elements between the situations and grouping them together into categories requiring similar resources and actions.
It is important to remember the basics, rather than reinvent the wheel, when creating and practicing an emergency plan. Resources like FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and other local and state government agencies provide checklists and guidelines for emergency preparedness that can help to develop and test a plan. While there is no single method that will perfectly prepare a facility for an emergency, taking steps to institute an efficient and adaptable plan is an excellent way to start.
Saak is vice president and general manager at Tyco SimplexGrinnell.
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