When the unthinkable happens, facilities managers head to the frontlines. There’s no time to wing it during an emergency, so it’s up to you so make sure there’s a solid, comprehensive emergency management and mass notification plan behind your facilities team.
Put your emergency management plans into practice, so everyone knows what to do.
How Safe Are You?
There’s no way to be 100% prepared for an emergency, but keeping your organization’s emergency management and communication plans up to date will get you as close as possible.
You probably have some emergency procedures in place already, but it won’t do any good if they’re in a dusty manual sitting in a drawer. The most effective plans are regularly practiced until everyone is familiar with procedures and updated often to reflect changes in building use, campus layout, technology innovations, or perceived threats.
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Whether you’re writing a new plan or revising an old one, make sure you answer these essential questions:
- What are your objectives? Life safety is the focal point of every emergency plan. Think about the different kinds of people visiting each building and include them in the plans. A university campus has faculty, staff, a constant stream of visitors (especially to athletics and music venues), and a mix of students who live on- and off-campus. A hospital or other healthcare facility has to account for a wide spectrum of people; some will likely need help to reach safety and many are likely visiting your area for medical care and have no idea where else to go if evacuation becomes necessary.
- What threats are you vulnerable to? Local weather patterns play a major role – obviously, a business in the Midwest shouldn’t waste time on hurricane preparation. Other threats, such as chemical spills, disease outbreaks, terrorism, or active shooter incidents can affect any area, sometimes with little or no warning, so make sure your plan addresses these scenarios too.
- How is your site or campus structured? Site layout greatly influences your emergency needs. “If you have a metropolitan campus with no residential area of any kind, your planning’s going to be considerably different because you don’t need to have an operation that would evacuate people from their domiciles in the middle of the night,” says Steve Layne, founder of security firm Layne Consultants International and author of The Cultural Property Protection Manual and The Business Survival Guide. “You might have a campus that’s so widespread that you can’t just deal with the campus proper, you also have to deal with a large outlying area.”
- What are your system’s capabilities? Notification and communication during an emergency require more than automated text messages and phone calls. If you have people living on-site, remember that many of them may silence their phones at night. Know how you'll sound the alarm and when.
- What agencies will respond? Know who will respond to each type of emergency and make sure everyone communicates. Invite area tactical response teams and emergency personnel to conduct drills in your building or on your campus. “You don’t really have any idea whether it’s going to work or not and whether emergency agencies can respond properly until you have an agreement and understanding with them and they’ve toured the area before anything takes place,” Layne says.
For the clearest picture, assess and practice every facet of your plan to make sure all four phases of emergency management – mitigation and prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery – are covered for every possible threat.
Say you’re looking at your fire safety plans, for instance. A major fire could rip through that vital research facility tomorrow. What can you do now to mitigate the threat or prevent the fire from spreading? How can you prepare the researchers inside to summon first responders and evacuate? How will key departments respond to the fire, and how will they restore the building and minimize the loss of irreplaceable research?
1) Mitigation and Prevention
You can’t entirely prevent disasters from happening, but you can take steps to limit the potential for widespread damage. Perform risk assessments at least once a year; if you add a new building or undertake a major renovation project, conduct an extra assessment that at least covers the new or changing buildings.
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Mitigation projects you can propose today could include anything from new building systems to simple retrofits that bring older buildings up to the high standards you have on display at newer buildings.
For example, Layne says, doors in many older buildings tend to lock from the outside, which would present an obvious problem if an active shooter is in the building. Replacing those locks as a “just in case” measure could save lives someday.
“It’s a proven factor in all the active shooter events we’ve had that if they came to a door that was locked, they move on to another door,” Layne says. “A very viable defense is locking doors – if you can lock them from the inside.”
Don’t just meet code and call it good. Extra capabilities can save lives and prevent serious damage to your buildings. A fire detection system that can sense smoke and heat will warn you about fires long before they become major problems. Perimeter alarm systems to detect intruders will help shield people, valuable collections, and other assets from theft and vandalism. Video surveillance that’s properly monitored can also be a lifesaver – literally.
“Things that were considered optional in the past are relied upon more and more, like panic and duress systems,” Layne says. “It gives someone the ability to call police without dialing the telephone or saying ‘I’m calling the police.’”
Even the best plans can’t make your organization 100% disaster-proof. Preparing for the worst through regular reviews, training, and field practice will ensure every member of your team knows what to do when disaster strikes. At Gustavus Adolphus College, a small Lutheran college in Saint Peter, MN, a 7-person emergency communications team meets monthly to run scenarios and test the school’s multilayered, multimodal mass notification system.
“A lot of campuses put a system in, but they make the mistake of not using it on a regular basis,” says Raymond Thrower, director of campus safety at Gustavus and a former president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. “The problem you run into is that when an emergency happens, and that adrenaline’s flowing and it’s 2:00 in the morning, people hesitate on getting it out because they’re second-guessing themselves. The more you practice, the more you’re going to feel comfortable getting that emergency message out.”
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Today’s technology-heavy environment demands much more than just the capability to send mass emails. Aim for massive redundancy with your mass notification system by broadcasting information “inside, outside, and at your side,” advises Peter Tately, mass notification program manager for Siemens Industry. Use many different forms of communication when an emergency hits to reach as many people as possible.
“Are they inside buildings, and if they are, how do you communicate with them audibly and visually?” Tately asks. “If they’re outside on the campus, walking in the compound, on the athletic field, or in the parking lot, how would you communicate with them there? If they’re dispersed, driving in their cars on the way to campus or sitting in their rooms where the system may not get to them, how do you communicate in that instance? That becomes the ‘at your side’ component.”
SMS text or voice messaging is the most common “at your side” technology, Tately says, but it can’t be the only form of emergency communication. Students may have their phones on silent or simply not answer your automated call. Supplementing the personal approach with both inside and outside communication – such as LED scrolling marquee signage, voice-enabled fire alarm systems, LCD flat-panel TV screens, poles with large speaker arrays, or blue light emergency stations – increases the odds that you’ll get your message out, Tately says.
Practice your planned responses to threats on a regular basis. Tabletop exercises are cheap to stage and should be done at least once a year, while more costly hands-on scenarios may only occur once every few years. In between, the emergency plan must be updated anytime a phone number changes, someone leaves the organization, etc.
In Gustavus Adolphus’s case, those exercises and constant reviews proved vital when dozens of students in one of the residence halls began complaining of intense eye and throat irritation. Fire, HAZMAT, and EMS personnel quickly responded according to plan while university staff raced to trace the threat, which they suspected was airborne.
“We were treating students that were coming out of the building and we were doing an evacuation,” Thrower says. “It turned out that someone had sprayed pepper spray in a residence hall and it got into the air duct system. Because of the practice and the preparation we did, everything worked like clockwork, but it was scary at the time when you’ve got 40 or 50 students coming out, they’re having problems breathing, and you’re not really sure what you have.”
If an unexpected disaster hits, you may have to get creative.
At Georgetown University in Washington, DC, a 2010 snowstorm swamped the campus with unprecedented amounts of snowfall, forcing administrators and faculty to reevaluate their academic continuity plans. The university had signed up for Blackboard, an intuitive online portal that allows teachers to post assignments, hold virtual class discussions, and give web-based quizzes, but due to Georgetown’s traditional emphasis on personal interaction in the classroom, many faculty members had yet to use Blackboard in a meaningful way.
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“Georgetown has held pretty true to its history of being brick and mortar classrooms with face-to-face engagement of students and professors. That became a major issue for us during the snowstorms,” says Whit Chaiyabhat, who served as director of Georgetown’s Department of Emergency Management and Office of Continuity (DEMOC) during the 2010 blizzard. “The challenge I observed was that distance education had not been fully embraced throughout the university. For the academic side of the university, it very much became an exercise of on-the-fly planning, and anybody that’s involved in emergency management knows that’s not the way to go about things.”
After the storm, Georgetown faced immediate challenges of removing snow, restoring function to the campus shuttle system, and coordinating deliveries of food, supplies, fuel, and other important parts of the supply chain despite having the city “essentially shut down for a few days,” Chaiyabhat says. There was no way team members could get to the physical emergency operations center. Fortunately, the team could fall back on Blackboard, the same technology some faculty members had yet to adopt.
“We created a course on the Blackboard system as if we were professors, and our ‘students’ who were allowed access to this particular location were members of the university emergency management team,” Chaiyabhat explains. “We designed a virtual EOC. Once the trigger was sent and people knew they’d been activated to deal with an issue, they can log into the Blackboard site – which is recoverable, from an IT standpoint – and they can start collaborating and making decisions. That served very well for the snowstorms.”
Georgetown has come a long way since its Blackboard days, says Tonya Coultas, Assistant Vice President for Emergency Management. These days, the university communicates closings and updates with the two-way app Rave, and faculty can choose to teach classes online if bad weather forces a closing or late start. Other employees are covered by a telework policy. Drills and exercises test the university's emergency management and business continuity plans.
As the crisis passes and your institution moves into the recovery phase, don’t forget to take time to note observations, obstacles, and other factors that will help you prepare and respond to the next emergency. Naming contractors of choice and awarding contracts before disaster strikes will keep your organization’s name at the top of the priority list when you need help restoring electricity, IT capabilities, or other important services.
Avoid potential recovery delays by backing up the as-built drawings of all building systems. If you don’t have them or they’re destroyed during a flood, for instance, the contractor will have to start from scratch and either trace every inch of every wire, pipe, etc., or run new wire, costing you more money in labor and potentially delaying the building’s re-opening.
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“It needs to be backed up and stored outside the building,” Layne says. “It’s a big pain, but it has to be done.”
Staying flexible and preparing for the unthinkable may not prevent every emergency, but they will help your organization respond as quickly and effectively as possible to any threat, Layne adds: “The key is trying to prepare the best you can for the perceived threats in that given community and think a little bit outside the box.”
Last updated May 30, 2018. Originally published Sept. 1, 2011.