Natural Hazards And Buildings

Whether hurricanes, wildfires, or earthquakes, threats from nature call for renewed look at emergency preparedness plans.

Compiled by Facility Executive
From the June 2021 Issue

In the United States, disaster losses from wind, floods, earthquakes, and fires average $100 billion per year, and in 2017 exceeded $300 billion—25% of the $1.3 trillion building value put in place that year. This according to a 2019 report, “Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves,” from the National Institute for Building Sciences (NIBS). The report represents an exhaustive benefit-cost analysis of natural hazard mitigation, from adopting up-to-date building codes and exceeding codes to addressing the retrofit of existing buildings and utility and transportation infrastructure. As efforts continue, here is a look at actions that can be taken in the immediate to protect facilities and people from natural hazards.

Hurricane Preparedness For Facilities

By Chris Cioffi

Is your facility ready to withstand the upcoming hurricane season? According to Colorado State University, the 2021 Atlantic Hurricane Season (June-November) is forecasted to be particularly active with approximately 17 named storms; four of which could be major hurricanes (category 3 or higher).

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Hurricane Michael in 2018 was first category 5 hurricane to strike the contiguous U.S. since Andrew in 1992. (Photo: Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety)

Not knowing where to start can be stressful. To help business managers create an effective plan the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) developed a customizable, stand-alone guide that walks users through developing and using a robust hurricane emergency preparedness plan. These materials include a customizable checklist that helps business owners, facility managers, and other stakeholders develop a plan for operational disruptions caused by severe weather.

With the advance warning of a hurricane, a well-developed plan will guide you through what should be done five days before, 72 hours before, 24-48 hours before, during and immediately after the hurricane, and during the recovery process.

While emergency planning ideally is a 12-month priority, the start of hurricane season is a good time to refocus efforts. Develop an emergency plan with these key items in mind:

Off Season Preparation. Long term planning, routine maintenance and repairs. Inspections should be conducted routinely at every season change and after a severe storm.

Assign a staff member to monitor weather conditions:

  • Monitor all advisories (NOAA National Hurricane Center).

Inspect roof covers and flashing:

  • Look for loose or missing materials, and have them fixed immediately.
  • Remove all debris
  • Check for loose flashing at perimeters, roof-mounted equipment, and curbs.

Inspect gutters, downspouts, and drains:

  • Clear roof drainage systems of loose material (e.g., dirt, leaves, other granules).
  • Check for ponding water on the roof and in gutters. Standing water indicates a problem with the roof drainage system.
  • Confirm gutters are anchored by gutter straps designed to resist high winds.

Inspect roof mounted equipment:

  • Look for rusted metal panels, screws, and metal flashing on curbs. Replace.
  • Confirm mechanical units are attached to the deck with proper hurricane straps, and each unit is secured to its curb.
  • Inspect around the unit’s connection to the curb it sits on, and check for any visible signs of potential leaks. These can be repaired using various roof sealants and caulks that are readily available.

Five days before landfall is the time to focus on what needs to get done.

  • As needed, properly secure or stow equipment, machinery (i.e. forklift, plows), trash receptacles, and fixtures vulnerable to the approaching hurricane.
  • Inspect roof and facility grounds for loose debris, which may become a hazard in high winds. Begin removal of the debris, if help is available. Otherwise, removal may be done at the 72-hours interval.
  • Notify employees of potential for severe weather and to prepare for the possible implementation of the emergency plan.

Activate the plan 72 hours before landfall.

  • If not already complete, remove or secure all loose roof and ground items, including landscaping, inventory, and signs that may become windborne debris.
  • Clear roof drains, gutters, and downspouts of debris to prevent water backup.
  • Clear debris from perimeter drains, especially in areas where water can collect, such as shipping/receiving areas where the ground slopes toward buildings.
  • Ensure fire protection systems are in working order.
  • Fill emergency generators with fuel, and contact fuel suppliers with anticipated needs for post storm deliveries.

When a hurricane is 48-24 hours away from landfall, finalize preparations and make sure employees are safe.

  • Install temporary shutters (e.g., plywood), or deploy permanently installed shutters.
  • Close and lock all doors.
  • Disconnect all electrical equipment.
  • If there is potential for flood or surge: seal all water entry points, and raise equipment and furniture above expected flood level.

A final point: Do not tape windows. It is a myth that taping prevents glass from breaking due to windborne debris. This method provides no protection and wastes valuable time for other storm preparation tasks.

hurricane preparednessCioffi is the commercial lines engineer for the FORTIFIED Commercial Program of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. He has a Bachelor of architectural engineering degree with a concentration in structural engineering, and a minor in architecture studies from Penn State.

Protecting Facilities From Wildfire

By Michele Steinberg and Lucian Deaton

The rapid increase in property losses, deaths, and injuries from wildfires across the U.S. over the past few years is a significant concern that warrants attention from those responsible for property protection and life safety. This disturbing trend has motivated the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to take a new approach aimed at ending wildfire disasters by 2050. The global nonprofit, a leader in fire and life safety, has issued a call to action—Outthink Wildfire. This new initiative, centered around policy approaches, aims to improve the safety of the built environment, and educate everyone at risk on ways that they can and should take action to save lives and reduce loss.

natural hazards
The NFPA’s Outthink Wildfire initiative is focused on policy approaches, aiming to improve the safety of the built environment and educate those at risk. (Photo: Adobe Stock / zorandim75)

Three of the major planks of this policy initiative are especially relevant to facility management, but on an industry-wide level, facility managers must ensure that all properties at risk from wildfire are mitigated or retrofitted to resist ignition. Any new structures planned in wildfire-prone regions must be designed, sited, constructed, and maintained using the most recent standards and sound land use practices.

Ignition-resistant Design. Research shows that well-built structures with landscape features that reduce ignition potential from embers and flames fare better when wildfires occur. Structures can ignite in many ways during a wildfire. Radiant heat from large flames close by can cause ignition, but any flame, even small ones burning in grass or mulch, can transfer ignition to combustible elements of the structure.

The greatest risk, though, are embers that either penetrate the structure or ignite materials or surfaces on or close to buildings. Embers can travel over one mile before landing in gutters, on flat surfaces, or in landscaping materials near facilities. They can also enter unscreened vents and openings in structures and burn buildings from the inside.

The key design features to minimize structure ignition from wildfire are:

  • Noncombustible roof covering and assembly
  • Noncombustible or fire-resistive siding
  • Dual- or triple-paned windows
  • Noncombustible signage
  • Protected vents or openings.

In addition, keeping the first five feet of a building’s perimeter clear of combustible material, including mulch, reduces the potential for surface flames or embers to ignite building elements.

Mitigating Existing Hazards. If your existing facility includes well-designed and maintained buildings, you have a safety advantage. However, look beyond the building envelope to address potential hazards on-site. These include overhanging trees or limbs that deposit debris into gutters or onto roof surfaces, creating a bed of fuel for embers. Dense vegetation within 30 feet of structures also poses a significant risk of ignition and wildfire spread. Attachments to the main building, such as decks, patios, porticos, or fences, should be evaluated for potential to catch embers or ignite and threaten the primary structure. Any ignition hazards to smaller outbuildings must also be addressed; a burning storage shed will create enough radiant heat to ignite other structures nearby. (Use NFPA’s tips for home/structure ignition zones to ensure the best protection for buildings.)

It’s important to periodically inspect and mitigate wildfire ignition risks. Seasonal actions may include removal of leaves or needles from vulnerable surfaces (gutters, rooflines, flat surfaces, areas under decks, or overhangs). During times of high fire danger, when local authorities may issue cautionary advice known as “red flag warnings,” take stock of buildings and landscape, and remove potential ignition risks. Stored material such as firewood or mulch piles become fuel packages for wildfire if not protected from ember ignition; move or cover such piles during a time of high fire danger. Outdoor furniture can pose a problem if flammable cushions or coverings catch embers; move these items indoors or away from buildings, if possible.

Educating Employees. When disaster strikes, business and facility managers must be concerned not only with the safety of the physical plant, but with safety of your employees. If key staff suffer the loss of their homes or long-term displacement, how will this impact your operations and recovery? Include employee safety in business continuity planning. Educating them about preparing their homes and families may save lives and prevent significant impacts to your organization.

Just as facility managers inspect, maintain, and mitigate structures, so can people who live in areas of risk. NFPA offers tips on protecting property from wildfire that apply to both homes and businesses. Further, NFPA manages the Firewise USA® recognition program which empowers residents to work collaboratively in reducing risks. Many of the lessons learned through Firewise can be applied to business settings.

Steinberg is the wildfire division director at the National Fire Protection Association. She leads a team dedicated to raising awareness of wildfire issues and oversees key initiatives, including the Firewise USA® recognition program, Wildfire Community Preparedness Day campaign, and new policy initiative, Outthink Wildfire™.

Deaton, program manager with the wildfire division at NFPA, manages international outreach for NFPA’s Firewise USA® Program and NFPA’s Outthink Wildfire™ initiative focusing on U.S. domestic policy issues surrounding structural risk reduction from wildfire.

Upgrade Building’s Earthquake Resilience

By Ali Sahabi

Does your building meet today’s standards for earthquake safety and offer the interior spaces and features occupants want? If your building is more than 20 years old, you could benefit from performing earthquake retrofits to improve safety and space utilization upgrades at the same time. Many building owners facing these issues choose to renew interior spaces as a part of seismic retrofit. The team at Optimum Seismic, Inc. in the Los Angeles, CA area has performed thousands of these retrofit, renovation, and adaptive reuse projects since 1984.

emergency preparedness
In this industrial building, new support beams secure the roof during earthquake retrofit construction. (Photo: Optimum Seismic)

Among our projects:

  • Converting a historic hotel in San Luis Obispo into a mixed-use project of 48 apartments and ground floor retail
  • Transforming the fire ravaged, historic Mayfair Hotel in downtown Pomona into apartments and ground-floor retail
  • Retrofit of former St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, one of the oldest buildings in LA, as part of conversion into a dining/event facility
  • Retrofit of the largest unreinforced masonry building in Los Angeles, the 7th St Produce Market
  • Converting Victorian homes into housing for the University of Southern California

In the majority of these projects, the need for a seismic retrofit was an opportunity to reinvent interiors: maximizing natural light, and enlarging office, restroom, kitchen, and closet spaces, for instance. Here are five ways a seismic upgrade can improve a building.

Reduce Costs And Disruption. If your building has any structural design flaws that may cause it to fail under a major earthquake’s intense shaking, it’s wise to consider a seismic retrofit to protect investment, income, equity, business, while also avoiding liability for deaths, injuries, and damage.

Seismic retrofits of commercial and industrial buildings can often be done with minimal disruption to occupants, and this period presents the opportunity to incorporate other upgrades in order to minimize impacts from construction.

Doing multiple projects at once can eliminate redundancy and reduce the time needed to manage construction work. Shared equipment and supplies, staffing, and storage requirements can be minimized when projects are done simultaneously.

Reinvent The Building. Many buildings constructed before the 1970s tend to have an overall boxed-in feel. Work areas are typically cramped and divided. Hallways are narrow, bathrooms compacted, and natural light is limited. Consider opening these areas by removing partitions and replacing “dead space” with functionality.

Bring The Outside Indoors. Consider the exterior of the building shell and how light and landscaping can be incorporated into the interior design. Terraces, balconies, and large windows can bring in increased natural light.

Incorporate Sustainability. Some of our most sustainable buildings are older structures that are adapted and retrofitted to extend their usefulness. It is estimated that construction and operation of buildings makes up more than “40% of total energy consumption, results in half our carbon emissions and consumes three billion tons of newly extracted raw materials in our country,” according to Kathryn Rogers Merlino, University of Washington associate professor of architecture. When an older building is replaced with a more energy efficient, “green” building, Merlino says it will take between “30 and 80 years to recoup that energy and carbon lost in the demolition and rebuilding of the new one.”

Improve Other Systems. It’s best to coordinate an earthquake retrofit with other improvements such as electrical, plumbing, and HVAC upgrades. This will help to avoid making significant upgrades to your building and having to take these apart a few years later when aging utilities fail, for instance. Consider making the most of a project by incorporating the latest in smart building technology or adding renewable energy to re-create a building that is safe and efficient.

earthquake resilienceSahabi is Co-Founder, Optimum Seismic, Inc.. The company provides full-service earthquake engineering, steel fabrication and construction services for commercial, industrial, and multifamily residential, buildings. Optimum Seismic’s work includes soft-story multifamily apartments, unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings and tilt-up, non-ductile concrete and steel moment frame buildings.

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