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4  FM quick reads on emergency response

1. Drills Catch Problems In Time

The great thing about emergency preparedness drills, besides getting to bust out your clip pad and orange vest, is that they show you where the holes are in your response strategy before the building is actually on fire, or has a gaping hole in it, or has sprouted an internal waterfall. While you may expect drills to show gaps in communication flow or reveal that the remote evacuation location won't accommodate your entire population if your neighbor facility also has to evacuate (you've checked on that, right?), drills are also genius for pointing out the little things you would never have thought about that could become big things in the event of an emergency. Here are three unexpected lessons facility managers learned from past drills.

First lesson: Standard elevator keys are impossible to use while wearing a HAZMAT suit. During a drill, Jeff Ellis, security manager for the Pyramid Center in San Francisco, discovered that suited up firefighters could not get purchase on the keys while wearing their thick protective gloves. Adding extenders to the keys made it possible for fire fighters to use the keys while remaining fully protected.

Second lesson: Fancy is not always best. By putting their emergency response and disaster plan onto a webpage, Jose Guevara, property manager for the Post Montgomery Center in San Francisco, thought they were being modern and efficient. Perhaps so, but the first responders who would be coming to his facility wanted a trusty binder they could just flop down where needed to see a floor plan. That's not to say all first responder teams want floor plans in a binder, so have a chat with the teams in your area to find out what will work best for them.

Third lesson: Emergencies don't follow the rules. The mindset that something doesn't happen at your location or simply can't happen is a recipe for disaster. Logically, facility managers can't run physical drills for every imaginable emergency, but Jackson Talbot, director of security for the Pyramid Center, says that teams can do table-top exercises to game plan what they would do when the weird, wacky and impossible happens. Talbot says he assigns one of his staff to keep a lookout in the news for facility-related emergencies around the world and then they have a talk about what they would do.

Find out more in the March Building Operating Management cover story, "Ready. Set. Drill"

2.  Fire Safety and Human Nature

No matter what facility mangers do to prepare an emergency response plan, provide proper notification and fire safety systems, and maintain a top-notch code-compliant facility, they can't escape the fact that in an emergency, they still have to contend with human nature.

You might think that in case of fire, it's human nature to panic. Turns out the typical response in a building, in the absence of visible fire, is to do nothing. There are several reasons for this. First, people may not realize what they're hearing is a fire alarm, either due to lack of education or because they're unfamiliar with the facility, as in the case of visitors. They might also not be able to hear the alarm. Or they may be jaded, and think it's just another drill they can ignore or a system malfunction, it that is common at the facility. Lastly, when the smoke alarm goes off in their own home, people go into action. However, in a public facility, that's in effect somebody else's problem to deal with.

For all of these reasons, it is important that fire alarms provide as much information as possible in a clear and concise manner. If a facility has only horns and strobes, this should be clear on signage so visitors are not expecting voice commands. Voice communication is preferable to tell people what the problem is, what their response should be and how they should go about doing it.

3.  Maintaining a Fire/Emergency Response Plan

The first step in providing for a facility's fire and life safety is to create a plan. The plan should be able to address all manner of emergency, from an occupant suffering a heart attack to an electrical fire. Facility managers can look to local fire codes, building codes, local fire departments and organizations like the National Fire Protection Association for advice and examples of what a solid emergency plan should look like.

Once established, it's also important not to be lulled into thinking that the plan is a finished, static document. With the dynamics of a facility always changing, from occupant type and space use, to actual space configuration, it's important to constantly update the emergency response plan to reflect the change in hazard levels. Also, before making any significant space changes, be sure no key features such as fire exits will be compromised and that any changes still comply with code.

4.  Establishing Emergency Response Procedures With Outsourced Service Providers

Part of creating a successful partnership with outsourced service providers is to clearly establish how both parties will handle emergencies. One tested approach is to establish a coding system that signifies the type of problem and an automatic course of action associated with that type of problem. For example, Code Red might mean fire or flooding while Code Blue might mean an urgent situation, such as a sanitation or restroom problem. The system should identify responses and how long the service provider has to carry them out.

The facility executive should also identify a single in-house point of contact, with backups and alternates, through whom all emergencies are communicated. Taking that concept to the next level would be to have several in-house contacts, each assigned to a specific code designation. That way, providers know immediately the severity of the situation when the particular person contacts them.


emergency response , drills

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