As the COVID-19 pandemic effectively shut down the U.S. and global economies this spring, there was a common response by public officials and media pundits which was repeated often: “No one could have seen this coming.”
The problem is that it’s not true.
This is not the first global pandemic we have experienced, albeit we have never seen one of this magnitude. But more to the point: The federal government issued a report in October 2019 titled, “Crimson Contagion 2019 Functional Exercise,” first published in The New York Times, based on a simulation of a global influenza pandemic that originated in China. The results of that mock drill—which involved 19 federal agencies, 12 states, 74 local health departments and 87 hospitals—revealed an important distinction between the facts and what we heard: We knew it was coming. We simply were not prepared for it.
That may be a hard pill to swallow for some in the commercial buildings market who are still reeling from the shutdown and trying to get up and running again. But for the ones who developed and implemented business continuity plans well before 2020, COVID-19 was a test of how well prepared they really were.
Impact of COVID-19: Lessons We’re Learning
If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that virtually no one was thinking about the long-term impact on buildings during an outbreak, according to Sean Ahrens, security market group leader for Affiliated Engineers. “I feel that we are failing the apocalyptic scenario on the easy setting,” he says. “I mean it. No one has been prepared for this.”
Part of the reason so many were caught off guard, he explains, is because even those who develop a business continuity plan often do it to check a box, but they don’t really follow up on it.
Anthony Pizzitola, director of facilities, business continuity and crisis emergency management at United Surgical Partners International, Inc., agrees and suggests most facility executives are driven by catastrophes.
“Their preparation is driven by disasters that have already occurred—hurricanes, active shooter—and so then they become prepared for it [after the fact],” he explains. “I don’t think that businesses in facilities were prepared for becoming almost totally vacant for two months by COVID-19.”
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In spite of the SARS outbreak of 2002, the swine flu epidemic in 2009 and the Ebola scare during 2014 to 2016, for example, Al Berman, chairman of the board and treasurer for Disaster Recovery Institute International (DRI), says in the building industry, “nothing has really changed because [other pandemics] have been nothing like this one. This is my third pandemic and by far the worst,” he says, “despite the fact we knew we were unprepared.”
Berman says the response is not particularly unusual, given that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, building owners realized escape routes were too narrow, but plans to widen corridors proved to be too challenging and costly. He does see COVID-19 differently, however, saying, “It’s something that may change the way buildings operate and the way we address future construction.”
Ahrens sees a similar short-sighted approach happening now to what he witnessed after 9/11 when building owners installed Jersey barriers in an attempt to do something but ultimately offered little protection.
“I see the same kind of thing here happening with COVID, but in terms of technology,” he explains. “Everybody’s going out and buying these thermal technologies and saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to put this screening process in place,’ and what have you, but not fully embracing some of the downstream effects.”
To his point, Ahrens has asked several clients about how they plan to handle issues like restricting access to the building for people who have a high temperature, cuing people for elevators or increasing the number of security staff, and it’s obvious most of them have not considered the long-term implications.
For example, if a tenant who leases multiple floors in your building arrives and shows a high temperature reading, will security actually turn the person away? What if they refuse and demand entry? Will security use physical force? What are the legal implications of such actions?
These are questions that need answers before such situations occur.
“The challenge is that we are having a knee-jerk reaction, and some of these protocols that we’re putting in place are just not achievable,” he notes. “I think that there’s going to be a lot of learning lessons that come out of this.”
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Emergency Response vs. Business Continuity
Part of the problem with establishing a solid business continuity plan is that people often confuse it for emergency preparedness. Whereas emergency preparedness is about dealing with an incident immediately—how do we address this crisis?—business continuity deals with the recovery aspect: How quickly can we get this business back into operation given this emergency?
“As it relates to these buildings, the things that we need to think about from a business continuity recovery standpoint is the availability of the equipment, the resources, the technology, the power, the water, etc., to make sure that our tenants will be able to support their operations when they do return to work,” Ahrens says.
By way of a succinct definition, Berman says business continuity is “the practice of maintaining the viability of operations under duress.” It covers a wide range of events from natural disasters, pandemics, cyber and technology disruptions, fire, equipment failures, supply chain disruptions, terrorism—anything that will require changing the mode of operation temporarily to overcome a disruption, he says.
Likewise, Pizzitola says business continuity involves “the strategic tactical and operational teams that would respond to an incident and who should contribute significantly to the writing and the testing of the BC plans.” He notes that IFMA’s No. 2 core competency for a facility manager is emergency preparation and business continuity.
Although it can be costly, Pizzitola suggests there needs to be an increase in corporate budgets to include comprehensive planning and testing in different scenarios. Although he observes that facility management and business continuity planners tend to be somewhat territorialized, Pizzitola says this is a time when FM and BC need to “leave their egos in the parking lot” to develop the effective plans.
“They need to fully understand what’s going on. They need to prioritize the known disasters that will hit their areas—hurricanes, tornadoes, active shooter, etc.—and then they need to come up with other scenarios that are the worst-case scenarios that will impact them or shut their business down,” he suggests.
The Importance of Preparedness
Whether it’s business continuity or emergency planning, Ahrens suggests following a four-step methodology process:
- Plan: Identify the scenarios that might happen and what elements or problems will be involved.
- Do: Develop a plan that effectively deals with a wide range of possible events and challenges.
- Check: Test the plan to ensure it works and revise it as needed.
- Act: Repeat the process regularly and hold tabletops to act out various situations so that everyone is familiar with proper protocols.
“I highly advocate right now before the building is open that you get with your team and you actually do these things,” Ahrens says. He suggests holding tabletops and acting out no-win or highly contentious situations, such as a disgruntled employee who wants to enter a building, asking the team how they would respond and then developing a plan of action.
Pizzitola says for a business continuity plan to succeed, “No. 1, we’ve got to get the support of management that we need to have this department. We need to make sure it’s fully functional, and we need to put the nickels and dimes behind it,” he says.
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Once it is backed by management, he says BC and FM staff should conduct risk analysis to identify both internal threats within the facility as well as external ones. For example, if the worst-case scenario for a facility in Galveston, Texas, is a hurricane, he says the staff should be thoroughly prepared days in advance and to conduct strategic, emergency testing so that everyone is familiar with it. Both FM and BC should “have their fingerprints all over these plans,” he emphasizes.
On the operational side, Pizzitola suggests many facilities, such as hospitals, might need to implement day-to-day testing on simple protocols like ensuring the back door to the building is locked. He notes that active shooters have gained entry to facilities because locking mechanisms weren’t working properly. “So, locks need to be tested daily and checked off that they physically tested them—basically everybody’s handprints need to be on these,” he says.
Berman adds that in many hotel facilities, for example, cleaning protocols are being ramped up and rooms are being sealed after custodial services cleans and sanitizes rooms to protect themselves and their guests. In other words, preventative maintenance will be important moving forward. If there’s question as to how to proceed, refer to CDC guidelines, he urges.
“It’s the prudent man theory: Everybody needs to point to something,” Berman explains. “Follow the CDC so you have some protection.” If a facility executive decides not to use masks and someone gets infected, for instance, it presents potential legal challenges and insurance issues.
Because although commercial properties are already reopening , this pandemic is not over yet, and the future of building design, operation and protocols is still uncertain.
“I think we're going to see a second wave [of COVID-19], which is relatively predictable,” Berman says, “but I think facilities themselves are going to change dramatically.”
He suggests facility executives will need to significantly increase the number of assessments performed for scenarios like mandatory evacuation, blackouts, sheltering in place and shutdowns. People will also be required to wear masks and have their temperatures checked before entering a building, he says.
“That’s going to be a big challenge for building managers and owners on how to do that. But I think it’s going to change the face of the way we allow entry just like 9/11 did,” Berman says. “There’s something akin to this.”
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