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In multi-tenant office buildings, all of the tenants have their own interests, all want their share of attention in a crisis, and many may stubbornly wish to go their own way, even if it means ignoring safety training and drills. Now transfer those challenges to an actual large-scale emergency, and the facility manager's responsibilities and stress ramp up exponentially. Having an effective emergency contact system is one tool that can help in such a crisis; what can hurt is if employees have been complacent about their safety training.
For Debby Pyznarski, senior general manager in Chicago for Lincoln Property Co., the biggest safety challenge in these buildings is trying to manage expectations during a major emergency. And she doesn't hesitate in offering an example: the enormous rainfall — 5 or 6 inches of rain in 24 hours — that flooded much of the Chicago metropolitan area in April 2013 and closed major roads and highways.
"I had a portfolio of 10 different buildings at that time," she remembers. "Every tenant from every building was feeling I needed to be there to address their concerns at that moment of time. I needed to replicate myself instantly.
"A building in Lisle was taking in water through their lobby doors from a pond in back. At another building, in Rosemont, they couldn't get to the building because the major highway in front was closed.
"You're trying to communicate and stay in touch with these tenants who are getting madder by the minute at things you have no control over. The phone is absolutely ringing off the hook and everybody is going, 'When are you going to be here?' "
What kept Pyznarski's head above water, so to speak, was having a system in place for contacting people in an emergency. In her case, her contact system was already loaded into an electronic broadcasting tool that provides email, voice-mail, and texting capability. "I was able to literally pull over to the side and send messages out to tenants in all of my facilities explaining that this was an area-wide crisis, that we were doing everything we could to keep them updated, that it was a very fluid situation, and that when we received information from governmental authorities we would share it. Sometimes they just need to hear from you, even if you don't have an answer. Knowing you know about it relieves a bit of the tension."
Any safety and security strategy for a multi-tenant office building has to include ways to get tenants to understand their role in helping to keep people out of harm's way. Another important challenge is planning in advance the response to an actual event, even when it seems a mere abstract exercise, and even when tenants, preoccupied with work, may have grown complacent about safety training.
Bill Criticos, general manager of three Philadelphia buildings, including two 40-story structures, for Brandywine Realty Trust, offers an example. In fully sprinklered high rises in Philadelphia, the entire building is not automatically evacuated in the event of a fire. Rather, the evacuation into the fire tower starts with three floors — the floor where the fire is and the floors directly above and below it — while the fire department assesses the situation. That sounds straightforward, but when there's an alarm, tenants who have not attended life-safety training may evacuate when they shouldn't. That can lead other tenants who should be staying put to evacuate as well, he says. The ripple effect can put both tenants and the fire department at risk.
With 6,000 occupants in two towers, Criticos' chief enemy is complacency. "We try to retrain every tenant every year," he says. But after a tenant has been in a building for a year or two, it's harder to get them to find time for life safety training. Tenants who fail to participate can, out of ignorance, "throw a monkey wrench into the whole process" of safety planning, he says.
Safety and Security Challenges in Multi-Tenant Office Buildings