By Jeff Thomas, P.E.
The Winter Storm Uri decimated Texas, affecting millions for days and even weeks. Freezing temperatures, power outages, and burst pipes left millions without basic services. Medical facilities across the state struggled with reduced water pressure and loss of heat. School campuses suffered from frozen sprinkler systems and broken boilers. Residents in several senior living facilities were evacuated. The list goes on.
Uri is the latest in a series of natural hazards to wreak havoc on Texas. In a few months’ time, the state will be bracing itself for hurricane season. While much has been written about how Texas needs to design and build resilient facilities to mitigate these hazards, less attention has been focused on what needs to be done from a maintenance perspective.
Regardless of location, there are several maintenance measures that can improve the safety and resiliency of a facility during a natural hazard. Below are six critical ones:
- Prepare A Plan: Facility managers should have an emergency plan for each type of extreme weather event. To start with, the plan should include information on protecting employees, visitors, and anyone else in the facility. It should also have detailed information on the various personnel who will respond during the event, their roles, and tasks. Second, it should have a list of critical systems and equipment that should be protected. Third, the plan should have a checklist of actions for each event: cold snaps, heavy rains, hurricanes, heat waves, tornadoes, droughts, etc. After creating a plan, test it out. Test as many realistic scenarios as possible. Record the results and limitations. Monitor practice drills and provide adequate training to staff. Review and update the emergency plan frequently to ensure it becomes a “living” plan.
- Stock Emergency Supplies: Once the emergency plan is in place, stockpile the supplies needed to execute the plan when the event happens. Ensure that facilities have enough water, food, personal protective equipment, flashlights, batteries, first-aid kits, medications, cell phones, chargers, and fuel for generators and cars. Monitor inventory of supplies to avoid use after expiration dates.
- Have Enough People To Implement The Plan: During a crisis, several critical tasks need to be executed. They cover a wide spectrum: monitoring the weather, evacuating and sheltering people, administering first-aid, operating building systems, providing security, communicating with media, cleaning up the facility after the event, etc. To execute these tasks efficiently, a facilities management team should have enough people. An overloaded skeleton crew will have to prioritize on the fly, which is risky, can lead to mistakes, and can be costly.
- Maintain Systems: A major issue during Uri was the failure of generators in many facilities. Faulty batteries, breakers, block heaters, and fuel tanks resulted in generators not functioning when they were most required. During Hurricane Harvey, backup generators were flooded. Generator location is just as critical as maintenance and operation.
Facilities should maintain generators in excellent shape, so they function properly during emergencies. Test run generators, ensure battery and other components are kept warm, and keep backup supplies of fuel, batteries, and spare parts. Follow manufacturer’s recommended maintenance procedures. Also, place emergency generators and their associated systems well above the ground so they can work during an extreme rain event. Perform a checkup of the plumbing system in the summer. Check pipes for signs of damage due to freezing. Install insulation and freeze protection measures well before the cold weather moves in.
- Conduct A Risk Assessment: During Uri, a nuclear facility that provides power to more than 2 million homes shut down due to a disruption in a feedwater pump to the reactor. Sometimes, the most unexpected vulnerability can derail an entire facility. A risk assessment will enable a facility manager to identify these vulnerabilities and prioritize mitigation activities that will reduce losses during such events. In multi-building campuses, prioritize critical facilities that must remain operational after a disaster and conduct a risk assessment of those facilities.
- Perform Facility Condition Assessments: Finally, facility managers can perform a Facility Condition Assessment (FCA) of their facilities and make decisions on whether to maintain, repair, or replace existing building systems. This, in turn, enhances the resiliency of the facility. A case in point: In the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, a school district in Texas conducted an FCA. Facilities ranged from new construction to those dating back to the 1930s. The assessment included instructional, administrative, and athletic facilities comprising a wide range of construction types from metal building to concrete tilt-wall construction. In addition to providing better analytics for campus-wide capital improvements, this assessment helped the school district prioritize maintenance decisions that prepared them for future natural hazards.
In recent decades, Texas has experienced extreme heat waves, hurricanes, rain events, flooding, droughts, and cold snaps. Unfortunately, these extreme events are expected to increase in frequency. While it is impossible to prepare for every event, we can prepare for the ones that we know are coming. Implementing the above steps will go a long way toward responding appropriately and recovering quickly afterward.
Jeffrey R Thomas, P.E, is a vice president and the director of Facilities Business Group at Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, Inc. (LAN), a national planning, engineering and program management firm. He can be reached at [email protected].