FM Issue: Emergency Measures In A Post 9/11 World

By Victoria Hardy, CFM, CFMJ

Published in the January 2008 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

facility management issue
(Photo provided by Claymour design by Megan Knight, Senior Designer, Group C)

More than 18,000 people safely evacuated from the World Trade Center complex in the one hour, 42 minutes, and five seconds between when the first jet hit the Towers and the last building collapsed. Those buildings that were destroyed not only included both of the Twin Towers, but also the Marriott Hotel, Six World Trade Center, and the 47 story Seven World Trade Center.

In the immediate two months following the disaster, USA TODAY’s investigative reporters documented the key issues in a special report [“For Many of Sept. 11, Survival was no Accident,” by Dennis Cauchon, USA TODAY, December 20, 2001] which profiled why so many were able to survive this event. These findings reinforced the classic design of emergency planning and business continuity that facility executives inherently understand and now have the ammunition to enforce.

The findings were later validated in The 9/11 Commission Report [The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, 1st ed. (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), 28-323]. Generally, the evacuation was considered a success: 95% of the people below (and sometimes on) the floors struck by jets survived. Unfortunately, 99% of the people above those floors died, and more than 479 rescue workers also perished in their attempts to fight the fires and evacuate building occupants.

Survival No Fluke

This was not an accident; for as was initially reported in USA TODAY and later validated by the 9/11 Commission [Commission, p. 316], this expeditious evacuation happened because of significant changes made by the Port Authority in response to the bombings at the Towers in 1993, “and by the training of both Port Authority personnel and civilians after that time.”

For example, emergency lighting in the stairwells and corridors was set up on a backup battery power source. (In 1993, the failure of the emergency lighting was a major problem in the evacuation.) The lights in the stairwells were also re-designed in modular sections; so if one section failed, the other sections stayed on (like Christmas trees). The lights were functioning on the lower levels of the Towers, even as the top floors were collapsing.

Evacuation drills were held every six months, and each floor had fire wardens responsible for the organization of evacuation plans for their floor. These wardens played a crucial role on 9/11, as they literally pushed and pulled people out of the buildings and searched the floors to ensure that everyone had left.

The Commission Report [p. 316] stated, “The general evacuation drill time for the towers dropped from more than four hours in 1993 to under one hour on 9/11 for most civilians who were not trapped or physically incapable of enduring a long descent.” This was a critical time difference, as the South Tower only stood 56 minutes from impact to collapse.

Stairwells To Safety

One significant aspect of the building layout did aid in the evacuation of thousands of people—the stairwells. Designed to a much higher standard than other structures built according to code 30 years ago, the Towers had three evacuation stairwells instead of the minimum of two. In addition, the center stairwell in both Towers was 56″ wide instead of the code required 44″ on the two corner stairwells. This allowed two people to move down these stairs side-by-side and permitted the firefighters to pass without stopping the downward flow of occupants.

The situation could have been even better; in late May of 2007, the International Code Council approved new codes for skyscraper safety requirements, implying that “tall buildings nationwide could soon be required to be designed with an extra emergency stairwell [key to the evacuations on 9/11] and more robust fireproofing….At least one elevator in buildings at least 120′ tall would also have to be specially built with backup power systems and fire resistant wiring so firefighters could use it reliably in emergencies.” [“Safety Group Proposes Third Stairwell in High Rises” by Eric Lipton, New York Times, June 23, 2007.]

As reflected in these code improvements, the elevator system at the Towers was another hero of 9/11. The system, redesigned and enhanced by Otis Elevator after the attack in 1993, was one of the biggest and fastest in the world.

Room sized express elevators moved thousands from the lobby on the 78th floor to the ground in 45 seconds. Each of the 12 elevators held 55 people. So every two minutes, 500 people were moved down and ultimately out of the Towers. [Cauchon, USA TODAY.]

More Work To Be Done

The one serious flaw in the improved planning was the lack of a set of as-built drawings in each of the fire command centers and in a nearby off site location. This omission delayed search and rescue efforts and cost lives.

The Commission [p. 318] also noted that “individual citizens need to take responsibility for maximizing the probability that they will survive, should disaster strike.”

Overall, good design and excellent emergency planning made an enormous difference on 9/11. Facility executives have long understood this critical relationship.

The principles of all emergency plans are the same, regardless of the location. The best plan is one that is comprehensive and understandable. It must involve the personnel of the company at every level and be easily understood by all employees, even those who have been with the company just a short time. It must consider the full range of potential disasters at all company locations, even if the probabilities of particular disasters such as earthquakes in London or tornadoes in northern Australia are fairly low. Last, but certainly not least, the emergency plan must be maintained, updated, and changed as necessary.


A Study On Planning

For the past two years, anecdotal evidence collected by the author of this article (along with Suzanne Kennedy, CFM, professor and program coordinator for the Wentworth Institute of Technology; Kathy O. Roper, CFM, CFMJ, MCR, LEED AP, professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology; and Research Assistants Traci DiSalvatore, Erin Michaud, and Julianne Savarese) resulted in a study indicating that perhaps planning, especially for total building evacuations, had stalled since 9/11.

In International Facility Management Association (IFMA) chapter meetings, in the IFMA classes taught by one of the authors of the final study, and in casual conversations with facility executives, there was an all too familiar embarrassed pause when asked about drills, their frequency, and thoroughness. When specifically asked about evacuation drill plans, some respondents would answer “yes” and others would say “no.”

Continuity planning was frequently “clarified,” “we are working on it,” or “it is in progress.” And the issue of an alternative location for operations of companies and organizations was greeted with puzzled looks.

So a determination was made to explore the reality of these key elements of emergency planning (specifically evacuations and alternate operational locations) in a statistically valid, targeted survey that could provide a truer picture. The goal of the process was to determine if, in fact, the anecdotal evidence was a better picture of the state of evacuation planning than might be evidenced in business reports.


In order to ensure valid data, the survey was designed to be delivered to a targeted sample of facility professionals in four IFMA chapters. Only the facility managers (fms) and executives were invited to participate, even if vendor members had facility responsibilities. Four IFMA chapters were selected for the following reasons:

Boston: This is the second largest IFMA chapter with 506 members with direct facility management (FM) responsibilities; it’s located in an East Coast U.S. city (perhaps more attuned to 9/11 issues, as two of the four planes originated from Logan Airport, and more than 200 people from the region died on that day); and it’s home to a broad range of industry types.

Atlanta: This is a large urban inland chapter with a mix of industries, including more manufacturing than the Boston region; it has 292 professional members.

West Michigan (Grand Rapids): This is a very active small to medium sized chapter in the Midwest; much furniture industry design and manufacturing takes place in the region; it has 74 professional members.

Central Pennsylvania (Harrisburg): Again, this is a very active small to medium sized chapter in a state capital (possibly more emergency awareness); it has a broad mix of businesses and companies; 84 professional members.

(The chapters were also selected because one of the authors had been a member or had been a guest speaker there and felt name recognition might help the response rate.)

The survey was designed and set up on SurveyMonkey, which allowed for targeted e-mails with a link to be sent to the chapter professional members. In order to enhance the potential response to a possibly volatile subject matter, chapter leaders were asked to forward the e-mail with their “blessing” and an invitation to take part in the survey. The survey cover letter also assured the participants of their confidentiality, if they needed that reassurance to be able to respond honestly.

The survey site was left open for four weeks in May 2007, and a statistically valid sample was secured during that time. Of the 956 possible respondents, there were 100 surveys completed, with a confidence level of 86% (which means that the results are significantly true), and a margin of error of 6% to 7% (which means that some people might have marked the wrong answer). Of the 57 people who identified themselves at the end of the survey, 26% carry the designation of CFM or another built environment certification.

Survey Results Revealed

The results were distressing at best, and a warning at worst of significant problems. The following is a summary of the questions and the analysis; it should be noted that for purposes of this study, the authors were most interested in the negative answers, for they reflected the percentage of facilities vulnerable to certain events.

Question one asked if the respondents have emergency evacuation procedures:

• 87% said “yes”

• 13% said “no”

This was the beginning of what would be a disturbing picture of emergency preparedness.

Question two asked the participant to identify the department responsible for developing the evacuation plan:

• 78% indicated that either “Facilities Administration” or “FM Planning and Design” were the responsible entities.

This is good news, because the FM unit can make planning happen if they make it a priority.

Question three asked if participants had a disaster recovery plan in place:

• 70% said “yes”

• 30% said “no”

This answer was the indication that as the survey continued, the responses might turn negative.

Question four asked about the department responsible for planning:

• 71.4% indicated either “Facilities Administration” or again “FM Planning and Design,” and

• 14.3% had no one responsible.

Managerial experience would suggest that if no one is specifically responsible for a task, it will not be done, perhaps accounting for the 30% negative response to question four. Another interesting response here was the emergence of a new “other,” the Business Continuity Office or Manager.

Question five asked what type of evacuation/drill rehearsals were being conducted by survey participants:

• Fire drills: 80.6%

• Communication drills: 26.5%

• Muster station drills: 9.2%

• Other: 5.1% (includes tornado, IT transfers, desktops, bombs, etc.)

In a follow up question, researchers asked the 18.4% of the sample that did not conduct evacuation drills why they were not undergoing these exercises. Some fms stated that due to the nature of their environments (healthcare primarily), they practice “protect in place.” However, this only accounted for 28.6% of the respondents (out of the 18.4%), which meant that 71% of the 18.4% had no legitimate rationale.

Question six asked how often the fms conducted evacuation drills with notification, and 44.4% said they did not conduct total drills of any kind with notification. And in question seven, which asked if drills were done without notification, the percentage was similar—42%. In fact, the combination of “infrequently” and “do not conduct” was 48%, close to half of the entire sample.

Question eight reinforced the negative trend. When asked “How often is evacuation training held for employees,” 40.4% responded “not scheduled on a regular basis.” At this point, it was also noted that 43% of the participants in the survey had not identified themselves, and that this figure may be a close correlation to the 44.4% who do not conduct drills or the 40.4% who do not regularly train their employees. This possible correlation emerged on later questions, justifying the original reasons for the confidential aspect of the survey (that is, an attempt to get at the truth).

Question nine looked at potential building modifications in response to either 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina findings. More than half of the respondents (60.8%) indicated they had no plans to make any modifications at that time.

Question 10 asked about the “completed components” of the emergency evacuation and disaster recovery plan. The research team encountered some discrepancies at this point. While plans were being written by the majority (83.7% indicated their knowledge of written evacuation procedures), they were not being maintained or practiced. Even with this response, 16.3% indicated they had no written procedures in place for evacuation. Furthermore, almost 30% of the respondents had no family communication plans in place or mail re-routing plans; 58.2% had not designated floor wardens for their facilities (a key component in the saving of lives on 9/11).

Question 11 followed up with the “intent” concept, asking if there were plans to implement or complete plans in the next six to 12 months. A curious phenomenon happened. Up to this point in the survey, almost all the questions were answered by 98 to 100 of the respondents. When they came to question 11, 40 of the respondents (again perhaps correlating to the 43 people who chose not to identify themselves), skipped the question. It certainly led the research team to speculate that perhaps not only did they fail to have good plans, there were no plans in place either to implement (practice) or complete existing plans—a depressing possibility.

The same phenomenon occurred to a lesser extent on Question 12 when participants were asked about contingency plans. This particular question was skipped by 20 respondents. The 80 people who answered indicated some level of contingency planning, with 43.8% noting they had a redundant facility in another region.

Question 13, however, which was designed to ask for the same information in a slightly different way, received a very distressing response. In response to “in case of a catastrophic event, do you have a back-up location available?” 97 of the respondents replied and 27.8% indicated that they had no backup location at all. The research team was very puzzled by this finding, because much research has proven that backup locations are critical to the survival of the business, particularly if the business expects to resurrect itself after the event.

The final blow for the research team was the answer to Question 14, which asked, “In your opinion, how adequate is your disaster recovery plan?” Of the total respondents, more than 47% indicated that their plans were either “somewhat” or “not very adequate.” When this question was correlated to Questions two and four, it became even clearer that facility professionals have the opportunity and responsibility to address evacuation and disaster recovery planning, but in some cases, they are not stepping up to this responsibility.

Moving Forward

While the overall findings of this study were disappointing, the authors realize that every movement needs a starting place. Furthermore, the information found in this research is important and must be shared with the FM community.

The authors plan a follow up survey in the spring of 2008 to determine the barriers to emergency planning. Anecdotal information volunteered by survey participants listed a variety of possibilities, including funding, inertia, and lack of expertise. The follow up survey would hope to shed some light on the realities.

Evidence shows that the responsibility and planning done in 1993 by the Port Authority building team saved thousands of lives in 2001. The hope is that a catastrophic event should not be the catalyst to motivate fms to do what should—and must—be done in order to save lives.

Again, the results speak for themselves: 95% of the people below where the planes hit the WTC evacuated safely. The number would not have been nearly this high had the Port Authority team succumbed to the inactivity that could prove to be extremely detrimental to the FM profession.

Hardy is a member of the TFM editorial advisory board, the author of the first edition of The Fit Facility: Human and Environmental Factors in Facility Management, and a contributor/author for Leadership in Place, published by Anker.