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FM Issue: When Disaster Strikes

Written by Anne Vazquez. Posted in Facility Management, FM Issue, In-Depth Articles, Magazine, Safety, Topics

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Published on April 18, 2005 with No Comments

By Anne Vazquez
From the April 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

While facility managers can’t predict an emergency situation, they can prepare for one. There are many kinds of emergency events that can affect a facility, including building system failures, fire, natural disasters, and manmade crises. In a perfect world, a facility manager would have a detailed, step-by-step plan in place for each and every possibility. However, in reality, it is virtually impossible to create a plan for every type of emergency.

Assessing the possible threats to a facility quickly adds up to a long list of potential hazards. Facility managers can identify areas of vulnerability by considering factors both internal and external to the organization. Facilities that store and use hazardous materials, for example, should be prepared to contain a potential spill. In another instance, buildings located in the path of regularly occurring hurricanes can benefit from the reinforcement that specialized building materials provide.

Still, planning for known vulnerabilities is only part of the picture. On any given day, a facility can be affected by a variety of threats ranging from a fire to a tornado to a terrorist attack. A plan that takes into account the wide variety of threats and circumstances is one crafted with an all hazards approach.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends an all hazards approach in its emergency preparedness policy. FEMA defines an all hazards approach based on the concept that a preparedness plan feature the same principles and actions no matter the specific emergency. This means that the plan establishes a single, comprehensive framework for the management of emergency events and applies standardized procedures and protocols. In the public sector, an all hazards approach enables various parties to communicate and act as quickly and efficiently as possible, because they are operating under the same protocols.

With this in mind, facility managers can turn to the task of creating a plan that addresses preparedness, response, and recovery operations. A comprehensive approach to emergency preparedness begins to bring a plan into focus.

Other organizations focused on the business of emergency preparedness and response also recommend an all hazards approach. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is one of these entities. Its NFPA 1600 Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs, which features an all hazards approach, was recently designated as the national preparedness standard for the private sector.

This occurred in December when President Bush signed the National Intelligence Reform And Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. Endorsed by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the NFPA 1600 designation was contained in this legislation. For private organizations, adhering to the standard is voluntary.

Originally drafted in 1995, NFPA 1600 is not a how-to guide with instructions on building a comprehensive program. Rather, it outlines the management infrastructure and other elements that an organization should use to develop a program for mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.

Designed to act as a guiding standard in the public sector, NFPA 1600 gained visibility when the Emergency Management Accreditation Program (EMAP) began using the standard. A collaboration of FEMA and several other agencies, EMAP is a voluntary assessment and accreditation program for local, state, and territorial emergency management programs. With the introduction of NFPA 1600 into the private sector, the move toward a unified approach to emergency situations may be furthered.

Asking The Questions

Whether or not a facility manager takes an all hazards approach, there are numerous resources to draw upon in the planning process. Organizations such as FEMA, NFPA, BOMA, and IFMA offer outlines, checklists, and other reference materials that can assist facility managers craft the plan. Local first responders are also a good resource.

In assessing risks to the facility, one should not underestimate the contributions of personnel in the organization. By assembling a group of people from key departments for discussion, a broad picture of the facility and its vulnerabilities will come to light. Facility managers can also involve upper level management in the planning process.

“Facility managers should consider the different business units they have in their facilities and get a senior level manager involved in brainstorming how to prepare something like this,” says Jeff Crane, P.E., senior property manager, Childress Klein Properties in Charlotte, NC and TFM FM Frequency columnist. “For us, this included the human resources department–because you always have a staff concern, and IT–because without them you can’t really operate. We also have a huge customer support function, so we included someone from there.

“We really created a committee to approach this,” continues Crane. “If you do this in a silo, you’re going to forget something and someone’s vital interests.”

Protecting People And Property

Ensuring that life safety and security equipment are in proper working order is part of the preparedness plan. It is also important to be sure that building structure and equipment is code compliant.

Robert Ten Bosch, CFM, principal at Harley Ellis, an architectural, engineering, planning, and management firm located in Detroit, MI, advises, “Facility managers should evaluate their facilities for disaster and threat assessment by touring the facility, reviewing and re-evaluating, and looking at any architectural or infrastructure impairments and limitations.” Taking stock of the facility and interior configurations helps the facility manager in outlining an evacuation plan.

During an evacuation, building occupants who have a disability may require additional assistance. Another occupant may volunteer to offer assistance in this situation. Also, help can come in the form of alarms with flashing lights or strobe lights as well as voice annunciators. Of course, these alarms and voice annunciators can benefit all occupants.

While these measures help ensure the safety of all occupants, Allan Fraser, senior building code specialist with NFPA, points out there is more to do when ensuring the evacuation route is accessible to all. “What it really involves is a change in mindset,” says Fraser. “We have to realize that everyone is an individual, and when we’re talking about emergencies, we need to plan for all of those individuals, whether they’re school kids, adults who work in a building everyday, or adults who may be in the building for the first time when the event happens.”

Knowing who will need additional assistance helps facility managers to keep an up-to-date emergency plan. “Facility managers should sit with whoever they need to in order to assure they are notified when people with disabilities are brought into the organization,” suggests Fraser. “There are some privacy issues involved, but if someone has a disability, it needs to get back to the facility manager. Then he or she can make accommodations for those people.”

The U.S. Department of Labor, through its Job Accommodation Network for workers with disabilities, suggests employers ask employees to self identify accommodation needs for emergency evacuation.

Once guidelines and procedures are on paper, the planning committee can also practice tabletop exercises and do a walk through of emergency situations. It is at this stage that gaps in information and other faults in the process can be identified. Upon completion, copies of the plan (or relevant portions) should be distributed to all involved parties.

Advice On Assets

Assessing damage to the organization’s physical assets can be a stressful and time consuming process. Facility managers can mitigate this stress by discussing the preparedness plan with insurance agents. “A good source for free information is your property insurance company,” says Crane. “They’ve got a real vested interest in making sure you don’t suffer damages. In addition to property insurance, consult your business insurance. They’re eager to make sure you don’t suffer business disruption.”

FEMA also recommends discussing the plan with insurance agents. Suggested questions include:

  • What perils or causes of loss does the policy cover?
  • Does the policy cover the cost of upgrades to code compliance?
  • What are the deductibles?
  • What records and documentation will the insurance company need?

In The Event Of An Emergency

When disaster strikes, communication is key. This holds true through all phases of an unexpected and stressful event. Therefore, it is crucial that all members of the organization are accounted for and informed. Reliable communications can contribute significantly to how well the organization weathers the disaster.

In order to communicate with people critical to the organization, contact information should be stored offsite. Crucial contacts may include key personnel, customers, suppliers, and insurance agents.

While phone trees have been a major form of emergency notification, changing technology has produced faster and more efficient systems. Automated notification systems, for example, activate communications to a pre-selected list of contacts. Messages can be sent by a phone call, an e-mail, or a page. Through this type of system, first responders, offsite personnel, parents of schoolchildren, and other crucial contacts receive a message regarding the nature of the situation. It is important to note that automated notification systems should not replace the primary mode of communication with first responders.

These systems are often used by schools to inform parents and guardians if an event arises. In Danbury, CT, public school officials recently installed a Web-based notification system as part of the district’s preparedness plan. Using an Emergency Response and Crisis Management Program grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the school district purchased the alert system to serve its more than 10,000 students.

“Effective communication is crucial in a crisis situation,” says Eddie Davis, superintendent of Danbury Public Schools. “We need the ability to send clear, consistent messages to the community quickly to avoid confusion and keep parents informed.”

With the crucial need for reliable communication, some facility managers include satellite services as part of their emergency plans. This technology is primarily used by people in remote locations such as offshore drilling, shipping, and cruise lines.

In the fall of 2003, Harrah’s Rincon Casino & Resort in Valley Center, CA used satellite communications when its voice and data lines melted in area wildfires. The casino’s management contacted Houston, TX-based CapRock Communications to provide communication services. The company installed a system for 72 phone lines and a data line within three days.

Beyond The Immediate

Planning for what will happen after an emergency improves the organization’s chances for quick and efficient business continuity. Recovery plans should consider what will be needed in both the immediate and the short term.

Recovery efforts often include repairs and restoration to the facility. FEMA recommendations for planning recovery include making contractual arrangements with vendors for services that may be needed, such as clean up of water damage or fire damage. To make a prudent choice of service provider, facility managers can make this decision ahead of time by contacting potential firms.

David LeJeune, catastrophe manager at Beaumont, TX-based C&B Services, recommends several things to consider when prequalifying restoration service providers. “Make sure they’ve been working in the business for at least five to eight years. And make sure that the company can handle [situations involving] multimillion dollar losses, if that’s what we’re talking about.

“Also, make sure they carry pollution liability insurance,” adds LeJeune, “in case they cause secondary damage or mold develops later because they didn’t do things right. Make sure they have insurance that will cover those possibilities.”

LeJeune also suggests that facility managers verify that the provider is bonded. A reference check is a necessity.

While facility managers may be charged with the task of creating emergency preparedness plans for their organizations, it is not often a one person job. The scope of issues to consider is vast, requiring input from personnel in various departments. It is important for the facility manager to use resources available both within and outside the organization. Taking action will help to ensure protection of people, assets, and business continuity after the event.

Information for this article was provided by interviews with Crane, Ten Bosch, Fraser, and LeJeune.

About Anne Vazquez

Anne Vazquez

Vazquez has been writing about facility management since 1996 when she began working at Today's Facility Manager (TFM) as the magazine's Editorial Assistant. From 2000 to 2005, she continued to work in publishing in another subject field until rejoining TFM's editorial team as Managing Editor in February 2005. In September 2012, she was promoted to Editor of TFM, where she continues to seek out solutions and trends for the magazine's facility management audience. Vazquez can be reached at

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