Ready for Anything: Emergency Response Planning

You've done your risk assessments, now what?

Breaking It Down
A plan must have several components. First, it must clearly define what initial actions should be taken in response to every threat and incident identified in the assessment. For example, when the security desk in a commercial high-rise building receives a call from a tenant stating that they have just received a bomb threat or that they smell smoke, what steps need to be taken? Who is responsible for investigating the incident and verifying it as either an emerging or emergency situation? Who will make the determination as to whether the emergency action plan is to be implemented? Will tenants be notified? How and by whom? Who will contact the appropriate outside agency and coordinate the response? The plan must answer all these questions.

The plan should also clearly define emergency situations and establish the criteria for initiating an emergency protocol. Examples may include the verification of a fire alarm, receipt of credible information from law enforcement, phone threats, or suspicious objects in or near the facility. Other possible reasons to initiate protocols are natural disasters, industrial accidents and power outages.

In general, there should be latitude given to the emergency response team as to when to initiate the implementation of the plan. The team must weigh a number of factors in determining whether to relocate or evacuate away from an area deemed to be hazardous, not the least of which is the fact that people routinely get injured during evacuations. Sprained ankles, broken limbs and even heart attacks may occur when large numbers of individuals are moving down long stairwells. A decision to evacuate should be based upon sound and experienced judgement or the direction of a competent legal authority. Remember, in many municipalities building managers and security staff in commercial properties do not have the authority to order an evacuation. Such authority is reserved for first response or emergency management agencies designated by statute. Typically such a list includes the police and fire departments and the Department of Homeland Security with its state and local equivalents.

Direct Emergency Responses
In general, four actions may be taken in response to an emergency. They are:

  • Full Evacuation
  • Partial Evacuation
  • Relocation
  • Shelter-in-Place

Full Evacuation. This measure is used to clear a building or facility in response to a potentially catastrophic or life-threatening situation. It often requires the order of competent legal authority.

Partial Evacuation. Used to evacuate people from the affected portion of a building. An example is the fire department ordering tenants to be evacuated during a fire on a particular floor as well as two floors above the fire and one floor below. Depending upon jurisdiction, this may require competent legal authority.

Relocation. Simply moving people away from a localized incident within a building or facility. An example would be directing people away from a suspicious package discovered in the lobby until police arrive. The responding agency would initially verify the danger and might then order either a full or partial evacuation. Relocation procedures typically do not require direction of a competent legal authority.

Shelter-in-Place. Numerous situations can occur that make it advisable for those inside a building to remain inside for their own protection. Unsealed procedures are necessary when the danger is unrelated to any toxic substance in the atmosphere. These procedures may be warranted if, for example, a strike taking place outside the building turns violent. Sealed procedures are used when there is a release (either intentional or accidental) of an airborne toxic chemical. Procedures call for sealing the building and turning off the HVAC system and any independent supplemental air intake units. Neither procedure requires the intervention of a competent legal authority.

The plan must clearly define evacuation routes and identify external assembly areas. Often a particular incident will require the use of a specific exit route or routes. Tenants and employees must be able to quickly identify a specific stairwell. For example, assume that a suspected truck bomb is parked on the north side of the building. The building has three stairwells and one of the three exits on the building's north side. During such a crisis, the exit on the north side would be deemed unsafe for use, and the occupants would be directed to use the other exits. This requires the stairwells to be clearly identified and, more important, that tenants or employees have a clear understanding of where each exit is located and the designation of each.