I had a rare opportunity to experience my very first earthquake recently in New York City. While on the 11th floor in a client’s building, a swaying motion began. I didn’t initially react because I thought I was becoming woozy. About 30 seconds passed, and the woman next to me said, “Did you feel that?”
Then I remembered, I was in New York City a few weeks before the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. People were still on edge. No announcement was made by building management, and hearsay filled the room.
“It’s happening again!” one woman yelled. Others pulled out their cell phones to gain any information they could, however “no service” kept appearing on phone screens. With no information, one person said “I am getting out of here.” With that, an autonomous self-evacuation, outside of building management, began.
Minutes later, building management announced the message: “A vibration has been felt in the building. Please stay at your location. More information will be provided.” But it was too late. The evacuation had already begun and was gaining steam. Only a few stragglers, including me, were left behind.
While seated at a desk, I was evaluating my options. A man speaking in the direction of the mass exodus indicated, “It’s an earthquake. I just got off the phone with the building next door.”
Soon after our floor announcement, building management announced, “A 5.8 earthquake has occurred in Virginia, please evacuate the building.” This was five minutes after the event. Now that the emergency was confirmed, I thought, “Why are we evacuating?” Quickly responding to myself, “The building must not be seismically rated.” I grabbed my laptop and joined the masses in the stairwell.
Post-incident, I reflected: Where was our location’s floor warden? A floor warden is to assist during an emergency and verify all building occupants get out safely. Later, I would ask building occupants from other floors if they saw their floor wardens. Blindly looking at me, many said, “No.” If I could speak to the floor wardens associated with this event, I would ask: “Were they there that day? Did they evacuate as a result of self-preservation, or lemming effect?”
As we moved down the stairwell with a mass of people behind us, I noticed many persons were tapping away at their cell phones, trying to make calls to gain information that I had, but they obviously did not yet hear about the earthquake.
As we rounded the corner of a landing, I heard a man say “Crap, my phone!” The clanking of plastic on concrete was an indication that he had dropped his phone. He attempted to stop, however the pure physics and mass of the people shoulder-to-shoulder on what seemed to be a 5-foot stairwell was no match for him. As he struggled to maintain his footing, he quickly realized he had to abandon his phone.
As I watched the people, it became apparent as they punched on tiny keys that, like when driving, they were not looking at each other and were unaware of their surroundings. They were simply aimlessly following the flow of persons coming down the stairs, blindly believing the person in front of them would never stop.
As we exited the building, I looked for the predetermined gathering point but the streets were flooded with people. I watched as emergency vehicles tried to navigate the cars and people that suddenly overflowed the sidewalks of the buildings near Wall Street. Every building within my periphery had evacuated, and their occupants were all standing under hundreds of thousands of pounds of glass building facade. Recognizing that there might be an aftershock, I headed for my hotel.
Fast forward several weeks, when I met with the ASIS International’s Commercial Real Estate Council (CREC) in Orlando. The CREC is like a real estate security think tank geared toward safety and security. During our meeting, I brought up my perceptions of what I had seen in New York City. To my astonishment, they too had experienced the same thing.
As we “white-boarded” the concern, it became apparent that there were some lessons to be learned from this event:
1. Immediate information needs to be provided by the building management regarding what to do. Failure to provide information will lead others to provide unverified information for you.
2. More frequent drills need to be conducted, and these drills need to review multiple types of emergencies, including an earthquake. Chemical release, active shooter, and flood may also be prudent emergencies to consider.
3. Gathering points for mass evacuation from multiple buildings have to be pre-identified and communicated to building occupants. Some emergencies may require sheltering or moving away from a building – it needs to be determined how that will occur.
4. A thorough approach for physically challenged individuals needs to be reviewed. In some instances, physically challenged persons may need to reside in areas of refuge or will be the last ones taken into the stairwell.
5. Sometimes, especially in a building that is seismically rated, we need to “shelter in place,” rather than huddle around a building and look toward the skies.
6. Cell phones, specifically data information, are useless in an emergency, and their use should be discouraged until persons are at a safe location. The person who I previously described could have fallen while trying to reclaim his phone and gotten himself or others trying to help him hurt. Policies and procedures need to direct persons to leave the phone in their pocket in an emergency.
7. Floor wardens, regardless of the emergency, serve an important role in an evacuation. Their role needs to be emphasized, and they need to be empowered to instruct people to stay put until told otherwise.
I am truly thankful that nothing serious happened to my fellow building occupants, and am glad that I had the opportunity to experience a real world scenario from the perspective of a training opportunity. It continues to be apparent that there are still things we can learn from crisis and how to respond.
Sean A. Ahrens (email@example.com), CPP, BSCP, CSC, is a project manager at Aon.