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The COVID-19 pandemic was a curveball for everyone, but there are things you can do in advance to prepare for the next pandemic, including updating your business continuity and emergency plans. The power of facilities management in a pandemic can’t be understated—you oversee many of the tools and policies that keep occupants safe.

Pandemic Planning—It’s the Standard Now

July 19, 2022
Pandemics affect everything from occupancy and layouts to cleaning and security protocols. Here’s why emergency preparedness plans should include outbreaks.

Eager to put COVID-19 in the rearview mirror? Pause that thought. Businesses shouldn’t treat pandemics as a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Because infectious diseases are inherently unpredictable, it’s always the right time to anticipate the next outbreak.

From a facility management perspective, a pandemic affects everything from occupancy and layouts to cleaning schedules and security protocols. These moving parts should be formalized into your business continuity plan. Learn how emergency preparedness plans can include pandemics.

Planning

Business continuity plans typically account for disasters: inclement weather, flooding, workplace violence, cyberattacks and the like. But our global experience with the SARS-CoV-2 variant demonstrated the virulence of communicable diseases.

“Pandemics have taken a tectonic shift from crisis management to corporate annihilation. We saw businesses quantitatively go bankrupt or qualitatively go market bankrupt,” said Anthony Pizzitola, instructor with Disaster Recovery Institute International and a certified Master Business Continuity Professional. “Imagine how much less tolerance there will be the next time around.”

The challenge with pandemics is that the crisis isn’t an external threat like a tornado or active shooter—it’s microscopic. There’s no emergency siren, Doppler radar or security sensor that will trigger an emergency response. This is the very reason why it’s essential for a business continuity plan to include pandemic protocols.

Where to start? Meet ISO 22301: 2019, Security and resilience—Business continuity management systems—Requirements. These best practices detail how to navigate the four Rs of a disruption: respond, resume, recover and restore. It’s more comprehensive than a plan, however. Business continuity is a cycle of continuous improvement that establishes and implements a plan but also routinely monitors and updates it.

“This is a type of enterprise risk analysis that looks for failure points,” Pizzitola explained. “Identify what needs to be implemented that would soften the blow of a future pandemic. You need a backup to the backup to the backup.”

People

The “what if” complexity of pandemic planning, especially where it impacts building management, is one reason this task shouldn’t be left to an ad hoc committee. Placing this duty in the hands of unqualified individuals is a serious vulnerability from a business and legal standpoint.

“Continuity planning should be cultivated and arranged by certified individuals,” stressed Pizzitola. “Companies often have a volunteer team to get it off the plate, but this responsibility cannot be hodgepodge. You need someone trained in business continuity and disaster recovery, plus they need to be in a position where they own your safety culture.”

Consider the breadth of this obligation. ISO 22301: 2019 states that a business continuity management system includes the following: “a policy; competent people with defined responsibilities; management processes relating to policy, planning, implementation and operation, performance assessment, management review and continual improvement; and documented information supporting operational control and enabling performance evaluation.” Serious time, effort and expertise are needed. Whether an internal position or a consultant, a resilience professional will be equipped to manage all facets.

Another critical aspect of pandemic planning is leadership support. Preparation without management buy-in will fall short. Executives are in a position to approve policy changes and budgets—they can put actual teeth into planning.

“The more emergency resiliency is treated and respected by a business, the more everyone will be on better ground,” according to Pizzitola. “Management should understand that even though a pandemic is a curveball, there’s much that can be done in advance. But that requires financial investment. You need to greenlight dollars required, not available dollars, to put your business in safe order.”

Practice

How do you drill for a pandemic scenario? A tabletop exercise is one way to simulate an outbreak. The purpose is to test your plan for vulnerabilities.

“You can have all kinds of plans in place, but they mean nothing if they aren’t practiced,” Pizzitola argued. “Business continuity plans take constant review and rehearsal.”

Fold it into your other life safety precautions. Facilities already have to abide by a number of codes and standards that require routine inspections—pandemic preparation can be treated in the same manner.

Even though COVID-19 isn’t fully concluded, it would also be prudent to conduct an after action report. You have over two years of events at your fingertips ready to analyze. Those lessons learned will inform future plans. It’s also an opportunity to get ground-level feedback from employees. Their insights can reveal what went well and what didn’t.

The power of facilities management in a pandemic can’t be underestimated. Many of the tools and policies that keep occupants safe fall under your domain. Formalize those pandemic processes through business continuity so your organization can efficiently implement safeguards.

Pandemic Planning for Facilities Management

Whether it’s a future COVID surge or an outbreak of another disease, pandemics strike at the heart of facilities management. There are a number of ways a building can be made safer for occupants. This list is a starting point of considerations. Remember that run on toilet paper? Those are the scenarios to anticipate. Some items, like antimicrobial surfaces or touchless fixtures, may even become part of your standard specifications. What will you need to purchase, maintain, stock or activate the next time?

  • People counting system
  • Occupancy sensors
  • Desk reservation software
  • Desk partitions
  • Video conference technology
  • Furniture rearrangement or removal
  • Specialty disinfectants and cleaners
  • Cleaning protocols
  • Sanitization stations
  • MERV or HEPA filters
  • IAQ monitoring
  • Medical screening checkpoints
About the Author

Jennie Morton

A former BUILDINGS editor, Jennie Morton is a freelance writer specializing in commercial architecture, IoT and proptech.

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