Emergency Preparedness: The Human Factor

Ensuring safe evacuations involves understanding the needs of all occupants and visitors

By Joan Stein  

Most managers would agree that nothing is more critical than being prepared for an emergency. But most institutional and commercial organizations focus their efforts on business continuity, meaning records, equipment and property.

Although maintenance and engineering managers and others involved in emergency preparations understand life safety must come first, they often spend too little time developing strategies to get people out of the building, particularly people who cannot use the stairs to evacuate.

How many managers put the primary focus of planning on people, the most important and costliest element to replace? Beyond that, not enough planners talk about ways to plan for evacuations when not everyone is able to use stairs to leave a facility quickly.

Taking Stock
For those planners who do consider human capital first, here are a few key questions:

• Do you know everyone who comes in and out and spends time in your building everyday?
• Do you know whether all of these people could safely evacuate the building without using stairs in an emergency?

Not counting individuals with obvious physical disabilities, managers and others involved in emergency planning need to consider individuals with:

• a heart condition
• a breathing condition
• a panic disorder
• a hearing loss.

They also should consider other types of unforeseen needs, such as the young person who just had surgery and is on crutches but works on the 30th floor of the building, or the long-time employee or tenant who recently might have been diagnosed with or treated for cancer or another medical condition.

This is just a short list of individuals who likely would not consider themselves as disabled and, therefore, identify themselves as requiring assistance in evacuating a building. But that does not mean building owners, managers and emergency planners can ignore these individuals and their needs.

Now consider the second tier of building occupants — tenants, customers, and visitors. A tenant with five employees might know everything about those employees and believe the company is prepared for any emergency. But what if its offices are located on the 10th floor of the multi-story, multi-elevator building? The well-planned exit strategy might not merge well with those of other tenants, unless the whole building’s plan is coordinated.

From the moment the doors open until they close — which for many buildings is 24 hours a day and seven days a week — people come in and out of a building without disclosing much, if any, information about their needs in an emergency. Since 9/11, most people have grown quite accustomed to being photographed, having to produce photo identification and various other security measures to gain access to a building. But at that point, does anyone ever ask, “Would you need assistance in evacuating the building in an emergency?”

Knowledge is Power
Managers can take some important preliminary steps related to both the facility and the people who travel in and out and occupy it every day.

Information forms the backbone of every successful emergency-preparedness plan. Gathering information about a facility’s current provisions for accessibility will tell managers what they must add to meet the needs of those who cannot use stairs to safely evacuate the building.

Gathering information about emergency-alarm systems and emergency-communications systems also is critical. For example, can people with hearing disabilities receive the information at the same time as everyone else?

A competent professional who understands the needs of individuals with all types of disabilities — physical, visual, hearing, etc. — as well as the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), can collect this information systematically during a thorough ADA evaluation.

Augmenting the built environment with the right kind of equipment suited to the needs of the building and its occupants is an important step. But managers shouldn’t rush to order renovations or new equipment without better understanding the needs and locations of occupants.

Education: The Next Step
Managers are ready for the next step — education and communication — once they know the emergency components a building will support, including:

• areas of rescue assistance, not just a room down the hall or a place on the stairwell landing
• emergency-communication systems that meet the needs of persons with hearing disabilities
• visual alarms where required
• identification of assistive equipment, such as evacuation chairs
• an emergency-response team with floor wardens.

Now comes the touchy part. Building owners, landlords, managers, and employers often believe they have to ask, “Do you have a disability that I have to accommodate under the ADA?”

That question is not necessary to get the needed information to protect a facility and its occupants. What planners need to know is, “Would you need assistance in evacuating the building if the elevators were shut down?” That question does not intrude into anyone’s personal disability or business, but it begins the dialogue.

But managers should preface that question with a great deal of education and outreach about the efforts the building ownership and management is making to ensure the safety of the building and its occupants. To make asking the question easier, managers can use the example of providing photo identification, something many people would not have tolerated before 9/11.

Managers also need to consider the case of a security staff that changes often. One solution is a simple script of questions that includes asking about the kind of assistance — an evacuation chair, the freight elevator, etc. — a visitor would need, as well as a notation on the sign-in sheet of that particular person’s needs.

Practice, Practice, Practice
In emergency preparedness, the adage, “Practice makes perfect” is absolutely true. Once managers know what the building can support and who is in it, the next big step is planning and implementing regular drills.

Arguments abound among employers and tenants about scheduled fire drills, and many people leave the building shortly before the alarms are scheduled to go off. For this reason, managers should consider periodic, unplanned drills.

The people who regularly opt out of scheduled fire drills can be a manager’s worst nightmare in an actual emergency. They will not know what to do or where to go and will be impediments to others.

These people often gravitate to the assisted areas, such as designated freight elevators for people identified as needing assistance. In doing so, they increase the number of occupants and prolong the time needed for evacuation. As a result, the schedule and timing managers grow accustomed to in evacuating a building provided a false sense of security because the drills had a lower census of people in the building. They simply don’t take the process seriously.

If this all seems a bit overwhelming, it can be, especially for managers more accustomed to dealing with facility issues who are thrust into the realm of dealing with tenants, customers and employers. The solution is an emergency-preparedness planning process that includes sufficient time, along with proper attention to detail, care, and diligence.

Joan Stein is the president and CEO of ADA Inc., a national ADA consulting firm. She is a member of the International Association of Emergency Managers and serves on the Special Needs Committee. She presents programs on emergency preparedness for individuals with disabilities and writes on the subject for a range of audiences nationally.

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  posted on 2/1/2008   Article Use Policy

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