How New York City Keeps Building Occupants Protected

May 4, 2010

FDNY has developed an all-hazards approach to disaster response for building managers and occupants

If you own or manage a building in New York City, you’re probably practicing a well-regarded all-hazards emergency action plan (EAP) that was implemented by the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) in 2006.

According to Andrea Houtkin, president of Houtkin Consulting Inc., a New York City-based security consultant, the EAP provides “excellent guidance to office tenants and building managers facing an emergency anywhere” – not just in New York.

The EAP, described in an FDNY regulation (3 RCNY 6-02), requires managers of buildings classified as “Group E occupancy” (small to large office buildings, as well as some retail spaces) to develop an EAP for fire and non-fire emergencies.

“We didn’t have a non-fire emergency before 9/11,” Houtkin says. “Up until then, virtually all emergencies, including the first World Trade Center bombing, were treated like smoke and fire emergencies.”

The 9/11 attacks imprinted the devastation of a major non-fire emergency on the city’s collective imagination and led officials to develop strategies and plans for responding to such problems.

Non-fire emergencies require different kinds of responses than fire emergencies. On 9/11, evacuating employees from the World Trade Center Towers proved slow and awkward because there were no non-fire-emergency evacuation procedures. As a result, first responders didn’t know who remained in the buildings or which floors were occupied.

Neither the fire emergency plan nor the associated drills in place prior to 9/11 covered procedures appropriate to handle threats posed by attackers with jet airplanes, guns, bio-weapons, bombs, or suspicious mail. Nor did those plans deal with responses to flooding caused by a broken water main, gas leaks, power outages, and other events. “There were simply no procedures for these types of things before 9/11,” Houtkin says.

Selecting and Training an Emergency Team

To implement the EAP, a building manager first selects and trains a team of people who will spring into action in the event of an emergency. The team consists of a Fire Safety/EAP Director, who comes from the ranks of building management and will receive certified training in fire and non-fire emergency responses from the fire department.

The Fire Safety/EAP Director will arrange and oversee EAP drills, which are separate from fire drills, to educate occupants about the various actions that different emergencies might require: sheltering-in-place, evacuation, partial evacuation, and in-building relocation.

Next is the appointment of Deputy Fire Safety/EAP Directors. The number of deputies appointed depends on the number necessary to ensure that either a deputy or the Fire Safety/EAP Director is in the building whenever tenants are present.

Still another safety appointment involves a Fire Safety/EAP Building Evacuation Supervisor, another back-up post.

Up next: the responsibilities of the tenants. The EAP calls for the appointment of Fire Safety/EAP Wardens and Deputy EAP Wardens from the ranks of the tenants on each floor. Wardens must be on duty on each floor during regular business hours. If several tenants occupy a single floor, each will have a warden. The Fire Safety/EAP Director trains the wardens.

“The wardens receive emergency kits,” says Houtkin. “The kits include red hats, keys, water, bars of chocolate, goggles, and other materials. The wardens wear the red hats to make them easily identifiable during drills and emergencies. They use the keys to lock down their businesses after everyone has been evacuated.”

When the non-fire emergency plan goes into effect, wardens work with the Fire Safety/EAP Director, assistant director, or supervisor to ensure that employees do what is expected: evacuate the building, carry out a partial evacuation, shelter-in-place, or move to a designated part of the building.

“The wardens make sure the tenants carry out three important tasks,” Houtkin says. “First, wardens must lead tenants to a designated assembly point. They must account for everyone, and they must set the company’s business continuity plan in motion as soon as it’s feasible.”

Accounting for company employees can be complex. In addition to reporting the names of those present at the assembly point, the warden must also find and account for anyone not present by eliciting an affirmative text messages or other forms of communication from them, proving that they’re in a safe place.

If anyone can’t be accounted for, the warden must inform the first responders and provide available information about where the person might be.

Accounting is a key step and an important lesson taken from 9/11, when first responders didn’t know who remained in the towers or where they were. By accounting for as many people as possible, the wardens prevent first responders from having to risk their lives looking for people who have already found safety.

“Finally, the warden sets the business continuity plan in place. Such plans, developed by companies, enable them to continue doing business as soon as possible following the emergency.”

The FDNY EAP system is a lot of work for building managers, tenants, and first responders. But by bringing many more people into the response process, it can help save lives in the event of an emergency. Says Houtkin: “This is a plan that makes each of us responsible in times of emergency. It can help keep employees safe, as well as first responders.”

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