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October 29, 2007

Preparing For An Emergency: A Step-By-Step Approach

Written by  Lawrence G. Perry
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Over the past several years, a steady flow of large scale disasters have occurred across the nation. Terrorist bombings, earthquakes, spectacular fires, large scale floods, wildfires, workplace shootings, and civil disturbances have all grabbed headlines. This series of events has led to an increased focus on the issue of emergency preparedness, as individuals wonder “Could it happen here?” This heightened awareness could have a significant benefit, if facilities take the opportunity to develop and implement comprehensive emergency plans.
If an emergency plan is to be effective, it must be tailored to the specific facility for which it is intended. The issues involved in emergency planning are far too widespread for there to be a single, universal, “one-size-fits-all”' emergency plan. Geographic location, building type, building use, adjacent facilities, and building occupants all affect the potential threats and the potential responses to emergencies. Therefore, an emergency plan must be developed based on the specifics of the facility in question. This article outlines a step-by-step approach that can be used to create, implement, and maintain an effective, comprehensive emergency plan.

THE EMERGENCY PLANNING PROCESS

The proper way to approach any large task is to break the overall project into a series of manageable pieces. The emergency planning process should also be broken down into a series of steps. The first two steps of the process involve identifying and organizing all the relevant issues. Once these issues are identified, the specific strategies of the plan can be developed. These strategies should then be reviewed and tested before the plan is put into place. Implementing the plan involves creating the needed documentation and training those involved. Once the plan is in place, a process for maintaining the plan is necessary.

The following six steps can be used to create an emergency plan for a facility that has no current plan. It is equally useful for reviewing and updating an existing emergency plan.

Step 1: Identify the Issues--The first step of the emergency planning process involves a straightforward identification of all the relevant issues or factors involved. The first group of issues to identify are the types of potential threats to the facility. What type of incidents are possible? The types of threats will depend on the geographical location of the building, adjacent facilities, the building configuration, use group, construction type and systems, the use of the building, and the occupants of the building.

In addition to identifying potential threats, there are four other groups of issues, or components, that should be identified. They include:

  • Regulatory Components - authorities who may adopt or enforce rules, respond to emergencies, or assist in recovery from emergencies,
  • Human Components - the building population,
  • Building Components - physical elements or systems,
  • Business Components - operations, physical contents, data, and insurance.

A thorough identification of each of these issues provides a solid base for the development of a complete emergency plan.

Step 2: Evaluate the Issues--Once all of the issues have been identified, the information should be analyzed to form the framework around which the emergency plan can be developed. This step should involve estimating the probability and potential impact of each identified threat, based on each of the identified components that are relevant to that specific threat. Potential problems or conflicts should also be identified.

With the information accumulated at this phase, a preliminary structure of the internal emergency team should also be outlined. This structure can be fine-tuned as the process continues. This preliminary structure is needed so that decisions regarding duties and responsibilities can be made in the next step.

Step 3: Develop the Plan--Specific strategies for addressing each known threat to the facility are developed during this phase of emergency planning. For each identified emergency, the following nine issues should be addressed:

  • Prevention--This issue involves actions that can be taken in order to reduce the chances of an emergency occurring, or to reduce the effect of an emergency should it occur.
    The focus of this issue should be actions that become “standard operating procedure” for the facility.
  • Detection--In every actual emergency, and in some potential emergencies, there is a specific time when some person or some system detects that an incident is occurring.
    Detection may occur either internally (e.g., a building occupant or a building system detects a fire) or externally (the National Weather Service detects a developing hurricane). This issue involves the identification of each potential source of detection for a specific emergency situation.
    In addition to identifying the potential source of detection, the potential timing of the detection should be identified. Some emergencies may be detected before they affect a facility, other emergencies may not be detected until they are already affecting the facility.
  • Notification--Once detection has occurred, the next issue is to ensure that proper notification occurs. Notification involves informing those persons (or systems) that need to know about the situation. Persons who are at risk need to be notified, as do persons responsible for responding to the emergency. Each individual and entity that would need to be notified during an emergency must be identified, as well as the methods or systems that will be used for notification. Internally originating emergencies may require notification of both external and internal entities. When an emergency originates elsewhere, the issue is to identify how the facility will be notified of the threat.
    The responsibilities and the complexities of notification must be tailored to the detection source. A visitor to the building cannot be expected to perform any but the simplest of notification. A building engineer, or an agency, such as the National Weather Service, is likely capable of more complicated notification responsibilities.
  • Communication--It is essential that effective lines of communication be opened and maintained throughout the incident. This issue involves identifying both the systems that will be utilized for communication purposes, and the proper channels, or procedures, to be utilized for ensuring effective communication. Persons involved in an emergency need to know how they will receive information, and how they should relay information that they may have. When developing communication strategies, be sure that the system will be reliable, and consider having at least one backup system available in the event the primary system breaks down.
  • Evacuation--Certain emergency situations may require the evacuation of some or all of the occupants of the facility. First, a determination of whether evacuation might be necessary for a specific emergency should be made. If evacuation might be required, determine whether evacuation would need to be complete or partial, and if it would be of an emergency (as quickly as possible) or a gradual nature. Other issues to be addressed include: determining who will order and supervise evacuation, how will occupants with special needs be accommodated, who will verify that evacuation is complete, and where persons will evacuate to.
  • Control/Mitigation--This issue involves identifying the systems or procedures that may be used to reduce the impact that an emergency may have on the facility. This may include actions before “impact,” during the emergency, or after the emergency. Unlike preventative measures, which become general procedure, control and mitigation measures are only feasible when an increased threat, or an actual incident, occur.
    Control and mitigation may involve either building systems (which may be passive or active) or human intervention. Human intervention may be by regulatory components (such as firefighters) or building occupants (a trained individual using a fire extinguisher).
  • Documentation--Thorough documentation is essential before, during, and after an emergency. Before an emergency, good documentation ensures that those persons involved know the plan, know what is expected of them, and know how to report and identify minor problems before they contribute to an emergency. During an emergency, documentation can be a helpful tool for those implementing the plan, increasing the likelihood that proper procedures are followed. Good incident documentation also provides an effective means of tracking the progress and status of an incident, and is also useful if a reconstruction of the incident is necessary. After an emergency, documentation can be helpful in improving the plan for future incidents, and in streamlining any issues related to liability or insurance.
  • Recovery--Recovery involves those actions necessary to return to pre-emergency status. Recovery may be either minor (a simple cleanup) or major (reconstruction). The potential steps that may be needed for recovery should be identified in the planning process. Some efforts before an incident may greatly increase the speed at which recovery efforts may begin and be completed.
    Regulatory agencies may offer recovery assistance from certain emergencies - these sources should be identified, with the proper contacts noted. Where the building is affected by the incident, repairs or replacement of elements may be needed. Some recovery operations may be able to utilize existing contractors or suppliers, others may require special services. Possible emergency recovery services should be discussed with existing contractors, specialized service providers should be identified and contacted.
  • Public Relations--The development of the emergency plan should include a process for handling media contacts and requests for information. An effective public relations plan is an important part of the overall facility and organizational response to an incident. A media contact person should be identified, and any requests for information about emergency preparedness, an unfolding incident, or a past incident should be initially fielded by that individual. Effective media and public relations policies can limit negative media attention, and can also prevent rumors, opinions, and unsubstantiated theories from being broadcast as facts.

Step 4. Analyze the Plan--Now that the plan is developed, this step serves as a “debugging” phase before the plan is put into place. This step involves comprehensive review of the plan, including outside review if possible, and testing of the strategies and systems being used. This step serves as a final review before the plan is implemented.

Step 5. Implement the Plan--In order to implement the plan, those persons involved must be trained, and the printed materials needed for the plan must be prepared. Training may involve both simple presentations to all building occupants, as well as intensive training, with possible certification or licensing, of emergency team or building personnel.

The plan documents should also involve several levels of detail. A single document will not be able to serve all of the various persons involved in the plan. A visitor or an employee in the building requires a much simpler explanation of the plan than does a building engineer or the facility manager responsible for coordinating emergency response efforts. In addition, regulatory agencies may require a specific set of information in a specific format to be located in a specific place.

Each of the different audiences to be reached should be identified, and both the training and the documents developed should be tailored to the needs, the responsibilities, and the expertise of the group.
Step 6. Maintain the Plan--Once the plan is implemented, a process should be put in place to ensure that each piece of the plan remains effective, and that the plan responds to any changes that may affect the strategies developed.

Any of the initially identified issues can change over time: the threat of a specific type of incident may change; regulatory components may change rules or response capabilities; building components may be upgraded, added, damaged, or removed; business operations may change; and, most commonly, human components will change due to tenant move-in and move-out, as well as the hiring, firing, promotion and transfer of employees. Any change to any component needs to be assessed for its impact on the emergency plan.

By constantly monitoring the subtle changes to the overall plan that may occur over time, the plan itself can gradually be revised based on those changes, keeping it up-to-date and as effective as the day it was implemented. If the plan is put into place and then forgotten about, when an incident does occur, critical personnel may be untrained, building systems may not function, and time will be wasted trying to identify the proper responses and procedures to implement.

RESOLUTION

Facilities without a comprehensive emergency plan should make it a high priority to develop and implement such a plan. Facilities with existing plans should set up a review process to verify that their plans are complete and up-to-date.

A comprehensive emergency plan can:

  • Prevent emergencies,
  • Keep small incidents from escalating into lane incidents,
  • Limit loss of property or life due to large incidents,
  • Reduce liability.

Once an incident begins, the opportunity for rational, well thought out planning is lost. An established, effective, emergency plan can make the difference between a minor inconvenience and a major disaster.


Lawrence G. Perry, AIA, Codes Representative for BOMA International in Washington, DC.

Read 2500 times Last modified on October 11, 2012