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Evacuation Planning: Four Mistakes that are easily made

Mistake #1: Not Communicating About Roles in an Emergency

Remember the old Abbott and Costello routine about “who’s on first?” Often, facility managers and their tenants encounter the same type of communication breakdown – only the result isn’t funny. Both parties can make very dangerous assumptions about who is responsible for managing an evacuation. This disconnect can cause confusion and panic in an emergency. You could have the wrong people giving people the wrong directions, or even multiple people giving conflicting directions. This can cause either a stampede of confused and frightened people or it can cause people to hesitate, losing the window of opportunity they need to escape harm.

You may be surprised by the erroneous assumptions both facility managers and tenants may make. For example, I once encountered a client who assumed the building management staff would help evacuate handicapped employees. The facility manager, on the other hand, assumed his job stopped at providing the appropriate equipment for handicapped tenants on the stairways and the tenant would actually assist the person down the stairs.

Recommendation: Start a dialogue! Communication between facility managers and tenants is critical. Facility managers should explain to their tenants how they will manage such events. Tenants need to discuss their assumptions about evacuation with their facility manager.

Mistake #2: Not Identifying the Real Risks

Every facility is unique. In putting together an evacuation plan, you need to know more than simply where the exits are located. A building’s size, tenant makeup, visitor makeup, location, security needs, community infrastructure and the type/timing of a disaster all impact how you should design your evacuation plan. For example, sending people out into severe weather could cause an even greater loss of life or injury than sheltering them in a protected part of the building. Similarly, if the building faces a biological threat, the last thing you want to do is to evacuate your tenants. You need to keep them safe inside the building until the emergency response team tells you how to proceed.

Recommendation: Create a joint emergency response team for the building. Get the facility manager, tenants, security staff, local emergency response and experts in crisis management to develop this team. Then, the team can develop evacuation procedures for multiple scenarios and educate everyone involved on those procedures.

Mistake #3: Not Knowing Your Audience

A friend and colleague was proudly showing me his building one day, highlighting all the new signs he had just installed explaining the facility’s evacuation procedures. There were several problems with the implementation, the biggest being that the signs were only in English. Since this was a major downtown building with a food court and retail stores, about 40 percent of the employees and customers did not speak English.

Recommendation: Take a good, hard look at who uses your building. For example, are there patients visiting medical offices for treatment, day care centers, high security areas, government offices, high profile targets, large tour groups or visitor populations? A museum that has a thousand children visiting each day needs to understand how those kids would react to an emergency evacuation. Talk to each tenant and ask what barriers there may be to employees and visitors evacuating safely.

Mistake # 4: Not Finding the Right “Muster Area”

Both facility managers and contingency planners define “muster areas” for evacuees to gather. This is a great idea. It helps emergency responders determine who may still be trapped within the facility. The problem is most muster areas are totally inappropriate for that function. One facility manager took me out to his parking lot and showed me how he had placed department / tenant names on every lamp post. The theory was everyone exiting the building would find their lamp post and the facility’s team could safely do head counts. Unfortunately, he did not take the needs of the emergency response teams into account, nor the fact the extreme cold in the winter would make this an impossible area to use during evacuations. You can’t ask people with no coats, keys, wallets or purses to stand outside in bad weather.

Another problem is when multiple tenants decide to use the same small internal area to muster their employees. Facility managers often fail to take into account the amount of outside traffic that may choose to seek shelter within their facility, thereby putting an additional strain on already inadequate resources.

Recommendation: Facility managers, tenants and emergency response personnel need to jointly develop plans to direct people to safe muster areas. You may need to establish a combination of internal and external areas where everyone can meet safely. You may want to preposition portable structures that can be setup quickly.

The Bottom Line

Once you have developed your emergency evacuation plans, don’t forget to test them. Start with desktop walkthroughs, and then perform actual drills. Develop scenarios for different types of disasters. Solicit feedback from participants in these drills. Make sure you provide a detailed report on what worked and needs improvement to both your tenants and the emergency response teams.

Also, develop an awareness program for both tenants and visitors to your building so everyone has the correct information. I once visited a building where they gave every visitor a small card telling them what to do and where to go in the event of an emergency – a smart idea.

Here is a checklist to help get you started:

  • Create a formal project (get all interested parties involved).
  • Develop an event management strategy that defines roles and responsibilities.
  • Develop an event management team to monitor events as they unfold and actually manage the actual evacuation.
  • Conduct safety and security audits on a regular basis (at least twice a year).
  • Conduct an infrastructure audit to identify risks with the building and the surrounding location (at least once a year).
  • Develop evacuation plans and coordinate them with your tenants.
  • Create an awareness/training program for everyone who will be involved in the evacuation.
  • Create an exercise and status reporting strategy. Include all the most likely disaster scenarios.
  • Conduct evacuation exercises (desktop at lease twice a year and actual drills at least once a year).

Having truly effective evacuation plans is one of the most important tasks you can do to protect the health and lives of your tenants and employees. It’s up to you to ensure everyone is on the same page when it comes time to evacuate.

This article was published in the Disaster Resource GUIDE for Facilities (Fall 2006).