By Bob Clarke
No one wants to spend their time mulling over possible disasters, but taking the time to plan for a crisis before it happens can help minimize the impact. The pandemic provided a stark reminder of how important it is to mount a quick and comprehensive response in the face of an emergency. Even though COVID-19 has monopolized our attention over the last 18 months, other disasters, particularly weather-related events, also pose serious challenges. According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the number of weather-related disasters has increased by 35% since the 1990s, with 100 occurring in the first six months of the pandemic.¹
It’s possible that you may find yourself dealing with two disasters at once or encountering a new crisis while you’re in the middle of cleaning up from a previous one. That’s why disaster preparedness is more than an extra step in your facility maintenance strategy. It’s an essential precaution for the safety of your occupants and your business. Preparing for the worst of times allows you to act quickly to protect occupants from harm, resume operations, and secure your assets.
In order to be effective, disaster response planning must be customized to each facility. Following is an overview on how to create a custom plan that keeps occupants safe and allows your facilities to get back up and running quickly.
Identify Potential Threats To Your Facility
The threats you face will depend on the type of facility you operate and its geographic location. You also should consider whether any particular features of the building, such as open floor plans (which inhibit social distancing efforts) or propensity for flooding, increase vulnerabilities. Perform a thorough risk assessment, so you can understand the true scope of the crises you may face and the hazards they can cause.
Brace for the True Impact of Each Crisis. Once you understand the types of disasters you may encounter, consider how all of the aspects of your facility would be impacted by each type of crisis. To develop this comprehensive list, ask yourself the following questions:
- Which specific hazards (e.g., electricity loss, fire, or occupant illness) can the crisis cause?
- Will it prevent employees and other occupants from accessing the facility?
How will the crisis impact your ability to provide business services such as network access?
- After performing the risk assessment, you can determine which critical facility services are needed to address the crisis and which emergency management resources you will need.
Incorporating Building Wellness into Your Disaster Response Plan. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, when we thought of disaster planning, we thought of keeping occupants safe from hazards like fire and flooding. Outside of occasional concerns around mold and mildew, air quality issues weren’t typically a consideration. And concerns about viral transmission were limited to the flu season. COVID-19 has shown how important it is to include occupant wellness as part of your disaster response plan. That adds a few new dimensions to your approach to occupant safety:
- In the event of an outbreak at your facility, you need policies and procedures in place to help mitigate the spread of infection.
- Occupants may expect you to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for employees and customers and enforce that it is used correctly.
- Social distancing measures require planning and communication and will impact building occupancy levels.
- Occupants with pre-existing medical conditions (such as asthma) may request special accommodations.
Viral transmission is an invisible hazard, and it can’t be addressed by simply closing off a portion of the facility for short-term remediation. You will need to implement long-term plans to sanitize the facility and improve indoor air quality. While you may have introduced disinfection programs and enhanced HVAC maintenance protocols in the wake of the pandemic, it’s important to make them an official part of your disaster response plan so you can act quickly in the event of another outbreak.
Develop Your Communication Plan
Communication can easily fall apart in a crisis, and, when that happens, occupants, contractors, and vendors can easily succumb to confusion. Confusion increases the likelihood of safety incidents and slows your inability to resume full operations. In your emergency response plan, include phone numbers for all emergency response services, as well as contact information for key internal and external contacts.
Include a plan for how you will communicate with building occupants. In the case of multi-tenant facilities, you will need to determine how to quickly disseminate information to multiple stakeholders and respond to their employees’ concerns. To manage inbound communications, your plan should include points of contact for occupants, as well as policies for the timing and format in which they should respond.
You don’t have to wait for an emergency to communicate your disaster response plan. While you don’t want to overwhelm building occupants with too much information, especially when they may not ever need it, it’s a good idea to proactively advise key stakeholders of who their emergency contacts are. You can also share that you have a disaster response plan in place and what occupants can expect from you in the event of an emergency.
Assess Lessons Learned
Every crisis presents a learning opportunity. After the disaster is over and you’ve resumed normal operations, perform a post-event review. Which parts of your plan were effective? Identify ways to further solidify those aspects of your plan and apply them elsewhere. On the other hand, you should also ask yourself where you fell short. How can you fill those gaps before the next crisis? A good disaster response plan is a living document that’s continually improving as you gain new information.
Hopefully, we won’t experience another pandemic for a long time and other disasters will be few and far between. That’s out of our hands, but we can only control how we respond. Taking the time to develop a disaster response plan now will give you some control in the face of uncontrollable events in the future.
Clarke is senior vice president, client experience & operations support for ABM. He has more than 25 years of experience in the facilities services industry.