Make-or-Break Steps for Disaster Preparation

Feb. 3, 2005
The right disaster plan makes all the difference

Call it disaster preparation, emergency planning, or business continuity strategizing: The terms may be interchangeable, but the implication behind them isn’t. In the event of a disaster, organization bounce-back comes down to preparation and planning. And as Forest Hills, NY-based Barbara Nadel Architect’s Barbara A. Nadel points out, in today’s litigious society, organizations which have failed to plan for emergencies could be held liable in the event of a fatality or injury. It should be every facilities manager’s goal to minimize the risk of injury, property damage, and business interruption and to ensure that mitigation and recovery are completed in accordance with applicable codes and regulations.

No book, website, magazine article, or hour-long presentation is going to provide you with a complete list of solutions. While this article won’t serve as the ultimate authority in disaster planning either, we’ve done the hard part for you: Organized on the following pages is information gathered from planning, preparation, and restoration experts – IREM, BOMA, Barbara Nadel Architect, Carlyle Consulting Group, Recon Solutions, LVI Services, and Munters Corp. – to provide you with suggestions on where (and how) to start.

1.   Establish Your Objectives
David Casavant, president of Lake Worth, FL-based Carlyle Consulting Group, recommends that you spend time thinking about these questions: What is the purpose of this disaster preparation plan? Who will this plan have jurisdiction over? Why does this organization need a disaster plan? When you arrive at Step No. 9 (developing and writing the first draft of your plan), knowing its purpose will keep you motivated and provide direction if planning becomes overwhelming.

2.   Recruit an In-House Team
Developing a disaster preparation plan isn’t a one-person job. Enlist collaborators with various backgrounds, responsibilities, and job titles from all areas of your organization. As IREM suggests, if your organization has multiple tenants, ask a representative from each tenant group to participate. These individuals will bring unique perspectives to what should be covered in the disaster plan. After assembling your team, duties need to be assigned.

Who will have the authority to declare an emergency, initialize an evacuation, and mobilize the necessary resources? Who has in-depth knowledge of your organization’s insurance coverage to deal with agents? Who will convey actions and decisions to occupants/tenants? Who will be the company spokesperson regarding media inquiries? Once positions have been established, make sure all members comprehend individual roles and the roles of others in the group. When members of the team depart, reassign responsibilities without delay so new participants have time to get acquainted with their roles.

3.   Research, Research, Research
Your property. You need to know the details of building components that may come into play during an emergency. To provide accurate information to emergency responders, building occupants, and other parties, make certain that floor plans are up-to-date. Planning specialists also suggest that you identify and diagram the location of:

  • Fire-safety components (alarm, detection, suppression, and containment systems).
  • Emergency stations (automatic external defibrillators [AEDs], eye-wash stations, first-aid supplies).
  • Security systems (access control devices, video surveillance sites).
  • Power supply (uninterruptible power supply [UPS] systems, emergency generators).
  • Communication devices (telephones, radios, modems, and PA systems).
  • Utilities (sewer lines, gas mains/valves).
  • Exit stairs, elevators/escalators, emergency signage and lighting, and other critical systems (fire control room, central control/operations areas, etc.).

After you’ve pinpointed their locations, spend time learning about these components: Which safety features do vertical transportation systems include? How long will emergency lighting systems last?

Many professionals also recommend identifying:

  • Evacuation staging areas (places where tenants/occupants meet in a disaster).
  • Location of tenants/occupants requiring extra help in an evacuation or emergency.
  • Vacant spaces (especially in multi-tenant facilities).

Once this information is collected and documented, keep hard copies in a fire-proof safe in your office, your car, and at home – also commit the plans and diagrams to CAD or AutoCAD and store them electronically in a secure location. This information needs to be easily accessible to update any changes to equipment, key personnel, or building layout.

Your geographic location and risk probabilities. Which disasters are most likely to occur in your area? FEMA’s website ( offers general disaster statistics to help determine which natural disasters are prone to occur near you. Talk to local law enforcement to find out about the crime and civil disturbance history in your area. Is your building located near a highway or railroad used to transport hazardous chemicals? Are you located near a nuclear power plant? Although not always taken into account, factors like these are critical in disaster planning. Identify any event that may cause disruption, and decide whether it’s worth planning for prevention and recovery. State and local agencies may have already completed risk assessments and mitigation plans for your region; check to see if they have information to share. If not, check out FEMA’s matrix for performing a risk analysis and use it to estimate the probability and impact of emergencies.

The tenants/occupants in the building. Realizing who occupies your building will help determine how emergency plans and evacuations are handled. Are any of the occupants children or individuals with special needs (vision, hearing, cardiac/respiratory, or mobility impairments)? Are there visitors or customers who may enter the facility periodically, but may not be familiar with the building’s layout? These issues require exclusive consideration and planning. In the event of an emergency, facilities utilizing access card readers and visitor badging systems can determine who’s in the building, who’s out on vacation, who’s at lunch, and the identification of current visitors. Storing identification information for building occupants and visitors remotely can be helpful in the event that building systems go down in a disaster.

Lease and insurance information. Get to know the insurance plan, and arrange for someone from your organization to meet with the insurance advisor annually. Understand deductibles, learn what’s covered, and find out which records the insurance provider will need to see after an emergency. “It’s imperative that insurance companies and legal counsel be consulted about the need for a disaster plan,” emphasizes Nadel. “Insurance companies should be a resource of information on developing plans and advising on what [should be included].” Review the ins and outs of tenants’ property leases as well. Tenants may feel that the responsibility of disaster planning and recovery is up to the building owner or property manager – you may feel differently (and the lease may be stated differently as well). Make it a priority to discuss and review disaster plans with tenants at the time of lease-signing.

Primary business components. “As a [facilities professional], I might be concerned with the generator or roof, but I haven’t asked my customers what they need to achieve business continuity. They might need alternate space, food and shelter, and other logistics [that I haven’t thought of],” explains Casavant. Confirm that you have a full understanding of the tasks performed in your building. Identify your organization’s core business (or the core business[es] of your tenants) and what is needed to keep business operations going. Also consider the cost of lost productivity: How long can business interruption be absorbed without causing problems? Some organizations choose to develop off-site locations where departments can continue working. Sophistication of these spaces varies greatly – some are little more than empty spaces that can be ready for occupancy in a few days. In other cases, organizations have exact office replicas located elsewhere so interruption is minimal.

4. Explore Maintenance Routines & Identify Substandard Systems
Prevention and routine maintenance pay off in disaster preparation. Case in point: You can’t prevent an earthquake, but you can limit potential damage by making sure building contents are stored properly, occupants are trained on protection, etc. Using the information you gathered previously, analyze your building’s systems to determine the preventive maintenance and upkeep that should be performed to help guarantee systems will operate safely and won’t fail in an emergency. Maintenance schedules should be written out, posted near relevant equipment, and adhered to. Procedures should also be put into place to confirm that hazards such as propped-open exit/fire doors and overloaded outlets aren’t a problem. Document any issues that may create setbacks and brainstorm ways to address them.

Is there any equipment that needs to be repaired, upgraded, or replaced? Facility systems are in place to protect occupants and assets, so identifying equipment that isn’t providing that protection is key. Another consideration: Does protection from a specific emergency depend on one single building component? If so, do research on system back-up options or possible alternatives (such as redundant building systems).

5.   Present Your Ideas to Executives
“There needs to [be] a ‘champion’ that endorses [disaster planning] policies and training. Most business continuity planners are mid-level managers, and the challenge is when they try to enforce the policies they’ve created on those that outrank them,” explains Casavant. Now is an ideal time to speak with upper-management about your disaster preparation plan: You’ve completed risk assessments and identified disasters that may occur, you’ve determined the potential costs of losses your organization will suffer if it’s not prepared for an emergency, and you’ve established in-house methods to ensure that you’re doing all you can to prevent disasters. Casavant suggests justifying the cost of disaster plan implementation by presenting management with the consequences of not having an action plan in place.

6.   Build Contacts and Relationships
With local agencies and authorities. BOMA recommends locating area agencies that can provide assistance in preventing emergencies. They also suggest talking with local organizations to discuss circumstances where no recovery assistance will be available. Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance; a security/safety inspection from local police and fire departments may help immensely with planning efforts. “Emergency response is a vital role of police, fire, and emergency management teams in cities and states,” says Nadel. “Establishing contacts and opening the lines of communication with public- and private-sector entities – especially real estate companies, landlords, institutions, and facilities and the public services that will respond to emergency situations – will save time in the long-run when needs arise.

“Large buildings, institutions, and campuses should have a central command center to coordinate information and effort with emergency responders. If major facilities don’t have a central command center by now, they should create one as soon as possible.”

With neighboring businesses. According to Casavant, reciprocal agreements with other organizations may be an option. Partnering with an organization and promising to provide each other with a predetermined amount of square footage in a disaster situation can be a solution – but keep in mind that these agreements may not always work out due to extenuating circumstances. However, Nadel emphasizes that a common oversight is failure to develop regional networks – especially in educational, healthcare, and other institutional buildings that could rely on each other to provide back-up services.

With disaster restoration experts. “The day a hurricane hits – or the day after a hurricane hits – is not the time to find a restoration contractor,” emphasizes Dan Flynn, national emergency response manager at St. Louis-based Recon Solutions. New York City-based LVI Services’ Al Draper, director of restoration, agrees: “Everyone should have a restoration provider that they have confidence and faith in.” Draper points out the significance of developing a working relationship with a restoration provider before the threat of disaster: “It gives us time to go over things like insurance, prices, labor rates, response rates, equipment rates – at a time when you’re not under stress. You can negotiate the terms, and then set them back on the shelf. Then, just in case something happens, [you’ve] got an agreement that [you] know [you] can live with that was negotiated without pressure. It’s a tremendous advantage to have these things all worked out and in place before something happens.”

7.   Select a Disaster Restoration Provider
These providers have the knowledge to deal with salvaging paper documents, prints/negatives, hardware, and other important assets. They also have the expertise to dry buildings and their contents properly. Providers can also help you expand parts of your disaster plan (especially in terms of mitigation). Experts agree that there are certain features you should seek out in a disaster restoration/recovery contractor. LVI Services’ Draper offers these tips when choosing a provider:

  • Check out insurance policies. “Make sure you’re dealing with a company that’s got the insurance to cover you and your assets. Make sure they not only have general liability insurance and certain types of umbrella coverage, but that they have [things like] pollution endorsements and mold insurance.”
  • Do they have knowledge and experience? Have they shown capability? Can they provide references that indicate first-rate response?
  • Bob Vanchure, regional sales manager for Munters Moisture Control in Amesbury, MA, recommends asking the following questions of restoration providers’ current clients:
  • What was the problem and what results did the restoration service achieve?
  • Did they provide a written scope of work and budget?
  • Do they provide turnkey service, ranging from consulting and engineering to drying and restoration?
  • What was their response time?
  • Were they on budget?
  • Were you pleased with their work; would you use their services again? Would you recommend them?

Make sure the provider you select is given a copy of your disaster plan and that they’re familiar with your organization’s emergency procedures.

8. Abide by Applicable Regulations
Learn about codes, regulations, and laws that need to be followed when developing disaster preparation plans. OSHA, NFPA, EPA, NEC, and ADA, as well as city/state authorities, have requirements and recommendations for maintaining order in an emergency situation. Study these policies carefully and determine which regulatory authorities have jurisdiction in your area. Many cities now require that organizations of a certain size have an approved emergency plan; larger cities (such as Chicago) have implemented rules for high-rise emergency procedures. “[These codes and regulations] will create the basis for your plan,” says Casavant. “The use of an outside consultant can be beneficial [here], because they come in as an unbiased source that looks at [your] organization without bias toward any department. They can speed up the plan development process and likely have a better idea of regulatory issues than [the internal staff]. They [also] have exposure to many organizations and have collected best practices from these organizations.”

9.   Develop the Plan
You’ve identified, evaluated, prioritized – now it’s time to put your disaster plan together. Much of the information you gathered earlier should be included here for easy reference. IREM advises keeping a copy of this plan in a secure place both at work and at home – and keeping an electronic copy in a remote location. Here are some suggestions for what should be included in your plan:

Reference information

  • Emergency evacuation plans (evacuation methods, deciding when evacuation is necessary, who calls for evacuation, post-evacuation meeting locations, etc.).
  • Copy of the floor plans and diagrams developed in Step No. 3.
    (but consider how closely the plans need  to be guarded from  the public to ensure safety).
  • Directions for accessing remote copies of floor plans, visitor/occupant entrance/exit history, etc.
  • General description of the building (age, construction materials, etc.).
  • Location of hazardous materials.
  • Checklists (organized by type of disaster) with step-by-step instructions on how to respond.
  • Relevant, current local building codes and state/federal regulations.
  • Insurance information (agent’s name/number, policy number, type of coverage).
  • Lists of on-site emergency kits, the supplies they contain, and how often the supplies need to be replenished or replaced.
  • List of building occupants, phone extensions, and physical office locations (as well as after-hours and emergency contact information).
  • List of restoration contractors and pertinent contact information.
  • Up-to-date list of phone numbers for all tenants currently leasing space (if facility has multiple tenants), as well as after-hours contact information.
  • Instructions and contact information for designated company spokesperson (and the spokesperson’s alternate in case he/she is out).
  • List of maintenance/prevention routines developed in Step No. 4.
  • Instructions for shutting down necessary equipment before evacuation (instructions should be posted near the equipment as well).
  • Location of alternate work sites.

Directions for the emergency management team

  • Detailed descriptions of emergency management team responsibilities (and who has taken on these responsibilities, along with contact information and after-hours numbers).
  • List of emergencies requiring evacuation, and info on making determinations regarding partial evacuation and evacuating in stages. Also include information on re-entry after an evacuation.
  • Identification of a “meeting spot” during an emergency (and an alternate site in case the initial site isn’t accessible).
  • Information about tenants/occupants needing help during an emergency. Places of refuge for these individuals should also be listed.
  • Plan for informing local authorities and insurance companies about disaster.
  • Procedure to follow when accounting for tenants/occupants/visitors in an emergency.
  • List of materials needed for disaster preparation providers (insurance information, blueprints, mechanical diagrams, lists of chemicals stored on-site, etc.).
  • Reporting/documentation processes, including instructions for documenting damage to facility and keeping record of contact made with restoration providers.

Directions for building tenants/occupants

  • Information regarding how occupants will be notified in an emergency, and how they will be kept up-to-date after an emergency occurs.
  • Methods for identifying members of the emergency management team, as well as relevant contact information for emergency management staff.
  • Directions for evacuation; explanation of situations in which occupants are expected to remain on the premises for headcounts, etc.
  • Evacuation meeting locations (including alternate locations if primary locations aren’t accessible).
  • Building floor plans with exit locations clearly marked.
  • Process for reporting emergencies if an occupant is the first on the scene.

10. Have One More Look
Once the first draft of the plan is complete, involve tenants/occupants and ask for their reactions and comments. Gaps, weaknesses, conflicts, and alternative solutions should be discussed, and “what-if” exercises should be conducted using the plan as a guide. Use these comments and the results from “what-if” exercises to draft a second version; from that second version, Casavant suggests conducting a series of “tabletop exercises.” As an emergency management team, select possible disaster scenarios and walk through them using the plan as a guide. If you don’t discover any problems and members feel confident with the information provided, it’s time to move on to the final draft.

11. The Moment You’ve Been Waiting For
When the final draft is done, it’s time to share. Pass out copies of the plan to occupants and tenants. Casavant recommends drafting different versions of the plan. You don’t want copies collecting dust on shelves, so pare the plans down and provide tenants and occupants with only the information they need. Introduce the plan via presentations, and follow up with walk-through drills so emergency team members can perform designated emergency functions. During these drills, point out first-aid stations, AEDs, alarm panels, and shut-off valves. Look into offering on-site training (CPR coaching, fire-extinguisher operation) to make sure tenants and occupants are well-prepared for disasters and feel some sense of responsibility. Let occupants know who is on the emergency management team – pass out names, photos, numbers, workplace location/department, and relevant skill sets: They’ll feel better knowing that someone is responsible for their safety, and they’ll also know who can field their questions. Convey reminders and information for review via memos, fliers, or a column in the company newsletter.

But … just because the plan is written doesn’t mean it’s finished. Make it a policy to go over emergency procedures with new employees, tenants, and occupants. Keep floor plans and diagrams up-to-date as necessary. Revise the plan when new equipment is introduced, when key personnel changes, or a change to building layout occurs. You should schedule an annual review to make any other necessary updates and become familiar with the information presented.

“The biggest problem we find in corporate America, whether it be large or small businesses, is that even if they have a contingency, recovery, or mitigation plan – and this happened at epidemic proportions after 9/11 – [emergency procedures] get stuck on a shelf and collect dust. If you don’t make your contingency plan a living process – if you just allow it to be a 3-inch binder sitting on a shelf – it doesn’t do you any good,” says Flynn.

Leah B. Garris ([email protected]) is associate editor at Buildings magazine.

Top 10 Natural Disasters

Ranked by FEMA Relief Costs as of July 31, 2004

  1. 1994’s Northridge Earthquake
  2. 1998’s Hurricane Georges
  3. 1992’s Hurricane Andrew
  4. 1989’s Hurricane Hugo
  5. 1993’s Midwest Floods
  6. 2001’s Tropical Storm Allison
  7. 1999’s Hurricane Floyd
  8. 1989’s Loma Prieta Earthquake
  9. 1997’s Red River Valley Floods
  10. 2000’s Miami Floods


Disaster Preparation and Response: Tried-and-True Resources

Ready to get serious about facility preparedness? Check out these books for help with everything from plan creation to restoration after an emergency (and everything in-between).

Building Security: Handbook for Architectural Planning and Design by Barbara A. Nadel
Available at (

Full of practical drawings, tables, photos, and checklists, this comprehensive reference tool addresses protection issues from natural disasters, terrorism, chemical/biological agents, crime, and workplace violence. Get specific information on safety strategies from national experts on more than 20 building types (including arenas, courthouses, healthcare facilities, museums, hotels, government buildings, and schools), and read about lessons learned from 9/11 and other major disasters in history.

Disaster & Recovery Planning, Third Edition by Joseph F. Gustin
Available at ([email protected])

Speaking to the issues of prevention as well as controlling the effects of a disaster on a company’s operations, this planning manual covers contingency planning, loss prevention, evacuation, training, checklists, computer and data protection, standby power, and much more. Regulatory issues are also covered, including the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000.

Before Disaster Strikes: Developing an Emergency Procedures Manual, Third Edition from IREM®
Available at (

Providing information and guidelines to assist property managers in developing emergency plans and emergency procedures manuals, this guide devotes entire chapters to emergency management team development, handling public relations, building evacuation, and restoration/resumption of building operations. An accompanying CD-ROM includes emergency planning forms that can be customized using Microsoft® Word or Excel.

Disaster Recovery Yellow Pages, 2005 Edition from Edwards Information
Available at (

This 350-page business-to-business directory is designed to help facilities professionals locate crucial recovery services throughout the United States and Canada – listings are categorized both alphabetically and by service. Relevant industry associations and training/conference information are also featured, along with several pages devoted to disaster-planning tips and suggestions.

Are Your Tenants Safe? BOMA’s Guide to Security and Emergency Planning by Lawrence G. Perry
Available at (

A well-organized guidebook, this manual covers all points in disaster planning – including a section devoted to dealing with the media after an event. Sample plans, checklists, memos, and press releases are provided, along with helpful information in regard to dealing with tenants/occupants needing extra assistance in evacuation situations.

Emergency Preparedness for Facilities: A Guide to Safety Planning and Business Continuity by David A. Casavant
Available at (

With chapters devoted to natural and manmade disasters, basic stages of planning, emergency plan creation, training and drills, post-event restoration, and emergency mitigation guidelines, this book also features valuable examples of checklists, worksheets, and forms. Explanations of all relevant OSHA requirements are also offered, along with a supplemental CD-ROM that contains templates for emergency plans.

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