Evacuation: Finding a Route to Safety

Three elements are critical to an effective emergency response plan

By Naomi Millán, Associate Editor  

Long gone are the days when simply saying, “In case of fire, call 911,” would pass as a sufficient emergency response plan. Today’s facility executives must actively prepare facility occupants to respond to a great range of threats.

The key to a successful emergency response plan is fostering an environment of readiness in the facility. To do so, facility executives should implement an emergency response strategy with three main components: a building-specific and event-specific response plan, a tailored training program, and a persistent education and reinforcement effort.

Traditionally, response plans have been based on a fire event that assumes full evacuation of the facility. At least half of facility executives have a good strategy in place to address such an event, says Robert Solomon, assistant vice president for building and life safety codes at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

“What we’ve seen is that, since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a lot of facility executives or even human resource managers have pulled that information out and brushed up on the fire-event procedures,” he says. That’s the good news. The bad news? Fire-event plans aren’t always the best course of action in the event of other types of emergencies.

Blueprint for Success

The first step to create a successful emergency response plan is to understand the facility inside and out. This includes the components of the physical structure, the neighborhood, the occupants and their habits, and the building staff.

Facility executives should know the capabilities of the building and the hazards and scenarios that could affect it, says Sheldon Rucinski, managing director of Schirmer Engineering’s Chicago office. For example, does the building house particular chemicals? Is it near train tracks? Is it under a flight path?

“People don’t consider all the different scenarios that could affect their facility,” he says. The threats could be chemical, biological, civil demonstrations, crime, and security issues.

Possible threats may be grouped into four major categories, says Jon Evenson, a senior consultant with Rolf Jensen and Associates, a firm that specializes in emergency response plans: human (such as medical emergencies), terrorism, building systems and weather. Facility executives should create a well-planned response for each category.

Emergency response plans must also acknowledge that full evacuation of a building is not always necessary or desirable. In a high-rise fire, for example, only a few floors may need to be evacuated. In the case of an external chemical hazard, sheltering inside the facility may be preferable.

In a post-9/11 world, facility executives may have to convince occupants that evacuation is not always necessary, Solomon says. In addition to unnecessarily exposing more individuals to a hazardous situation, full evacuations could also hamper the efforts of emergency responders by creating a crowd to manage.

Addressing Occupant Needs

A good emergency preparedness plan should address the needs of occupants with disabilities. In March 2007, NFPA released a free downloadable emergency planning guide specifically for people with disabilities on their Web site. Joan Stein, president of Accessibility Development Associates, says she recommends commissioning a professional Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) survey of the building. “Many ADA compliance issues will also be general safety issues. The audit can serve as a basis for the emergency plan,” she says.

Not all disabilities affect mobility. Occupants may have visual, hearing, speech or cognitive disabilities. A disability could be temporary, such as an individual recovering from knee surgery, or simply someone who could not easily walk down many flights of stairs. The human component is variable, so it’s impossible to know the exact makeup of a building population, Stein says.

Sometimes facility executives might be hesitant to address issues around disabilities directly. The best method is to respect privacy while making the individual an active participant. Instead of asking, “Do you have a disability?” Stein recommends putting it this way: “Would you need assistance in getting out of the building?”

Collaboration with occupants with disabilities is important. “Don’t make the decisions for them,” Stein says. Work with occupants to understand their choices in the event of evacuation. For example, if a person uses a powered wheelchair and the only method of egress would be an evacuation chair, what are the options for mobility at the rallying point?

In the near future, evacuation options may be expanded. Advances in hardening the elevator shafts and equipment against heat and water may allow for expanded use of elevators during evacuations, says Solomon. This will be a huge benefit to occupants in a high-rise environment, especially for those with mobility impairments. NFPA will vote on the provision in 2008.

Knowing is Half the Battle

Once a plan is in place, the next step is educating the building population and the emergency response team. “Make sure occupants are familiar with the plan,” Solomon says. “They’re not going to have time to review it once the alarm goes off.”

Consider developing a truncated version of the emergency response plan with only the information occupants need to know. It should include, for example, how they will be instructed during a live event and what the alarm will sound or look like.

Another way to avoid inundating facility occupants with information is to tailor the information for different groups. “Not all occupants need to know what everyone else needs to do,” Evenson says. “They only need to know what they need to do.” A senior manager, for example, will have a very different role in an emergency than security personnel.

Evenson suggests a three-tiered training strategy. The first level is training emergency response team members on their duties. This is based on the emergency response plan. The second tier is training facility occupants through dissemination of the plan and drills. In the last tier, “table top training,” the response team walks through a series of potential scenarios in a classroom setting. This is where the diversity of the facility occupants which may affect the plan can be explored and addressed.

Having individuals understand their roles in an emergency is crucial. If an occupant or part of the emergency response team doesn’t have a specific function, be sure to educate him or her on the basic behaviors that can help facilitate the evacuation, such as staying calm and checking doors, says Rucinski.

Everyone in a facility should constantly be on the lookout for potential hazards. They should take note of and report such items as obstructed exits, tripping hazards and burnt out exit signs. “The building engineer can’t catch it all,” Rucinski says. “Foster a team attitude. There are always small details that are missed.”

Facility executives should be persistent in educating occupants about the emergency plan. “The worst thing for a plan is apathy or complacency,” Rucinski says. Opportunities to bring up emergency preparedness include when a new hire comes on, during Fire Prevention Week, on the company intranet, or during quarterly employee meetings.

Practice Makes Perfect

In the stress and confusion of an actual emergency, building occupants must instinctively know how to respond. “It needs to be an ingrained behavior,” Evenson says. This kind of muscle-memory response is only possible through repeated drills.

Drills often fall by the wayside because they can be time consuming and disrupt the daily operations of a business. These may not be valid excuses, however. “There aren’t too many businesses that will grind to a halt because of a half-hour fire drill,” Solomon says. If occupants still balk at doing drills, find creative ways to accommodate them.

For a successful drill, it’s important to make it as life-like as possible. “You really want to test the limits of the system,” Solomon says. The fire safety team could block off a corridor or stairwell to force occupants to use their secondary exit, for example.

While being sensitive to business needs, try to give as little advance warning as possible and vary the scenario. You have to give notice that they are drills, but you have to catch occupants a little off-guard as well, Rucinski says. Conducting the drills will give people the sense of what a real scenario will be like when they are forced to walk down ten flights of stairs.

Large Scale Lessons

In Sept. 2006, the city of Chicago worked with the private sector to stage an evacuation of four office buildings in the heart of downtown to measure the preparedness of the private sector and city agencies. Michael Cornicelli, director of government affairs for the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago, was instrumentally involved in this first-of-its-kind exercise. Cornicelli says that the building emergency response plans in general were found to be sufficient for the purposes of evacuation, but some key areas for improvement arose.

One area for consideration is the rallying point. Often, emergency response plans will designate a location for employees to regroup after an evacuation. Cornicelli says this model works well for drill purposes because it creates an opportunity to do head counts. However, in a real evacuation, no one would know if the rallying point would be safe. Also, in an urban scenario where multiple buildings may be affected, city officials would decide the proper rallying point. Working with local fire and police agencies, it might be more fruitful to train people on what to look and listen for once street-side. “Educate the building’s population to be receptive to instructions,” Cornicelli says.

Other areas facility executives should consider are the efficiency of the communication systems and individual preparedness. In an emergency, seconds matter. Using redundant lines of communication with key members of the emergency response team, such as phone calls to their office and cell phone and e-mails, will help to quickly close information gaps, he says.

Facility occupants should also have a “go bag” with such items as comfy shoes, water, a flashlight, family contacts, a radio, and a one- or two-day supply of medications and other necessities. Because emergency preparedness could entail sheltering in place, individuals should be aware of their needs and provide for them.

In the event of an emergency, city response teams will quickly be on site to manage the situation. However, in the intervening time, it is up to the facility executives to safeguard the building and its occupants. “In a real scenario,” Cornicelli says, “we’re the first responders: the building engineers, the security personnel, the floor wardens.”

— Naomi Millán

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  posted on 10/1/2007   Article Use Policy

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