How to Create an Emergency Response Plan
When Mark Briggs, chief risk officer for Ohio State University, was brought on in 2008 to consult at an aircraft maintenance facility, it had already taken a multi-million dollar hit from a tornado ten years earlier and there still wasn’t an emergency response plan in place. It took Briggs four weeks to create, test and implement an emergency response plan.
“Everything was set and ready,” Briggs says. Ten days later another tornado touched down a half mile away from the facility. Luckily this time, thanks to Briggs’ plan, the facility was prepared and suffered minimal damage. But, Briggs adds, even though “the facility was prepared, the employees still failed to execute the plan correctly, standing in doorways, watching the tornado pass” instead of staying safe inside. The incident revealed a need for management to mandate and enforce the employee compliance, Briggs says, of the emergency response plan that had been developed.
Are you ready?
There are plenty of unpredictable natural disasters from hurricanes to tornados, while facility mangers can’t control the extreme weather, they can control how they prepare for it. Having an emergency response plan in place before a natural disaster is critical for preventing destruction and saving lives.
Here are nine ways to build your natural disaster plan:
1. Understand your region’s vulnerabilities
With global warming and increasingly unpredictable weather, you should plan for even the most unexpected natural disaster in your area, says Bill Begal, founder and president of Begal Enterprises, Inc., a fire and water damage disaster restoration company based in Rockville, Md. However, there are natural disasters your facility is more vulnerable to, based on your region, so focus on those.
Because certain disasters (such as earthquakes and tornadoes) happen without much warning, do practice drills with your facility occupants so they know what to do in an urgent moment. For example, during a tornado drill, make sure everyone can get to a windowless lower level shelter; during an earthquake drill, have everyone practice taking cover under a sturdy piece of furniture such as a table and holding on until shaking stops.
There are plenty of resources online to find out more about the specific threats each disaster presents and how you can mitigate them. Visit the websites of the EPA, FEMA, CDC and the American Red Cross. Many of their tips are for homeowners but can be applied to commercial facilities as well.
2. Designate a place to go if there is an emergency
Your biggest concern is the safety of your staff and tenants, so designate an immediate place of shelter for everyone within the facility. The seemingly obvious choice is the basement, but depending on your facility type, it’s not necessarily the best choice or always available. For example, Rosie Zerbst, business continuity manager/infrastructure analyst of corporate facilities for the Podiatry Insurance Company of America (PICA) Group in Franklin, Tenn., says their basement/parking garage was unsuitable during a tornado warning because they would have to go outside to gain access, so their safe shelter is a windowless conference room within the building.
3. Do a practice run
It’s essential to go through the potential natural disaster scenario before it happens, because it will bring up issues that need to be resolved. Briggs says it’s critical to do hands-on training drills with your staff and tenants. For example, during the tornado at the aircraft maintenance facility, Briggs says although everyone followed procedure in preparing the facility, afterward, they all went to windows to watch the tornado. Luckily, no one got hurt, but to prevent the issue from happening again, Briggs says the facility then added a strict disciplinary addendum to the plan that if anyone fails to follow procedure in an emergency situation, it’s grounds for termination. “It was a real learning moment for them,” he says, “and it caused a complete shift in culture.”
4. Create a plan for turning off equipment and securing dangerous substances
During a natural disaster, you must quickly isolate any dangerous chemicals or flammable liquids so they don’t feed a potential fire or spur an explosion, Briggs says. Outline in an emergency plan who is going to shut down any equipment that is electrical, pressurizing or heat-generating to prevent any explosions, fires or circuiting out. Make sure to designate back-up personnel, Briggs says, in case the primary person is not available or present.
A few years ago, Briggs was brought in to consult a Midwest printing press facility that prints a nationally distributed publication, and had lost an excess of $3.5 million, he says, because no one had shut down the presses during a day of extreme wind and they all circuited out. Not only was it a costly mistake in terms of equipment replacement, but it also greatly disrupted production for several weeks. Because the facility printed a newspaper that couldn’t take a hiatus, Briggs says the facility owners were forced to outsource the printing services during the recovery process. “It was an expensive logistical nightmare,” he says. Had they simply turned the presses off, they would have only had minimal damage.
5. Get weather updates
Besides watching TV and listening to radio updates, monitor an impending natural disaster via Weather.com or NOAA.gov. Many mobile apps (e.g., AccuWeather, WeatherBug and The Weather Channel) will send alerts to your smartphone about severe weather; if you don’t have a smartphone, you can set up text messaging alerts.
6. Have a warning system in place
Use multiple channels for alerting others in your facility. Install an audible alarm to be heard throughout the building or have an intercom system where you can verbally warn others, and make sure you test them. Zerbst said once during a tornado warning, the siren alarm didn’t work and they found out later it wasn’t plugged in. Luckily, they used their intercom system instead, so everyone was warned in time.
If you decide to shut down the facility, Begal recommends having a phone tree list of cell phones ready, so you can quickly get in touch with everyone. Or, save time by setting up an account with a messaging system that will automatically call a list of phone numbers and play your pre-recorded message. Most systems support SMS or automatic text messaging as well.
7. Have a contingency plan so that you can stay running
There’s always the unfortunate possibility your facility will suffer significant damages in a disaster, Begal says, so you need to have certain contingencies in place so that you can stay functional. This can include, but is not limited to:
- Having a back-up generator so that necessary equipment can stay running during power outages.
- Backing up your server at a second location so that your data stays safe.
- Contracting a back-up workspace until your facility is up and running again.
- In addition to having a first aid kit, Zerbst recommends also having a three days supply of food and bottled water within your facility. There are many 72-hour emergency kits available to buy, or you can build your own.
8. Make sure your facility is properly insured
You can purchase a disaster insurance policy, which usually comes with two options: named peril or open peril. Named peril covers what is named or included in the policy, while open peril can cover disasters not explicitly included. Briggs says, in most cases, an open peril policy is preferred because it covers any related loss that is not specifically excluded, putting the burden of proof on the insurance company rather than you to prove coverage should be excluded.
Most commercial insurance polices are open peril with specifically named exclusions, Briggs says, the most frequent being flood or pollution. “For companies wanting coverage for these named exclusions, they would then purchase supplemental named peril policies,” he says. But, Briggs adds, those policies can be very expensive and not necessarily cost-effective. Before you decide whether to buy supplemental named peril policies, Begal suggests reviewing your building’s history to see how much damage it incurred from a past disaster and how much it cost to repair.
9. Review and then re-review annually
Outlining the most detailed of plans is a huge step, but you shouldn’t stop after merely creating it. Test it, and then modify the plan based on failed processes. For example, Zerbst’s Business Continuity Disaster plan included a weather service sending automated e-mail warnings of extreme weather, but the IT Department soon realized the e-mails were going to the spam folder. So the IT Department had to verify the sender’s address so that future e-mails are sent to the inbox instead. Once the plan has been implemented, review it quarterly and test it at least once a year to include any updates, such as phone number changes.