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Full-Court Press

Is your facility prepared to defend against a fast-breaking emergency?

Facility managers must prepare for all types of emergency scenarios, from hurricanes, earthquakes and floods to terrorist attacks and industrial accidents. While all of these emergencies present substantial risk, those that strike without warning – a factory explosion, for example – require immediate response. Such fast-breaking emergencies can be defined as events in which conditions and circumstances change dramatically – in a few seconds or less.

One example of a rapidly unfolding emergency is a factory explosion. However, plant emergency response teams also must be prepared to address hazardous gas leaks, chemical spills, fires, terrorist attacks and acts of workplace violence – all of which could occur at a moment’s notice, and without any warning.

Two characteristics distinguish a fast-breaking emergency from an event that requires a less-urgent response.

The first is the nature of the event. Explosions, hazardous gas leaks, chemical spills and rapidly spreading fires are examples of emergencies that require immediate response. On the other hand, blizzards, flooding and isolated or contained fires typically call for a less-urgent response.

The second characteristic relates to the amount of warning preceding the event, and the immediacy of risk to people and property. An explosion or chemical spill at a manufacturing plant – or a rapidly spreading fire at a shopping mall, school or hospital – poses a more immediate threat to people and property than a blizzard or flood that hits a facility with hours or even days of advance warning. 

Meteorological technology now enables weather forecasters to accurately predict a hurricane’s landfall hours or more in advance, and to issue tornado watches hours ahead of a potentially dangerous storm front. In some cases, meteorologists issue tornado warnings up to 30 minutes in advance, and can pinpoint a severe storm’s expected path down to the street level. 

Some facilities are more susceptible to a rapidly unfolding crisis than others.

Because of the nature of the materials that they handle, refineries, petrochemical plants and facilities involved in the retrieval or processing of unstable or volatile gases (such as propane, liquid natural gas and liquid petroleum gas) are vulnerable to a fast-breaking crisis resulting from an accident, natural disaster or terrorist act.

Automated messaging and signaling systems capable of triggering emergency action plans can reduce response times to milliseconds.

Emergency managers also must consider issues that go beyond the hazardous potential of the materials being processed, stored and transported. For instance, facilities located in the vicinity of a geological fault line must be prepared for the possibility of a highly unpredictable earthquake. Facilities in specific Midwest regions require response plans for seasonal storms such as tornadoes, while facilities located along coastlines need to be prepared for tsunamis and storm surges.

Costly Disasters

Over the past few decades, there have been numerous examples of large-scale disasters that fall into the category of fast-breaking emergencies. 

Among the most notable examples is the 1988 explosion that occurred on the Piper Alpha natural gas production platform in the North Sea. The accident took 167 lives, incurred more than $4 billion in insured property damage and caused a significant disruption of natural gas production for the United Kingdom.  

The explosion was compounded by the failure of the rig's automatic fire-containment systems, and clearly pointed to the need for greater system redundancy. The tragedy triggered the development of sophisticated backup systems for future offshore drilling platforms.

The 2005 BP refinery explosion in Texas City, Texas, killed 15 people, injured more than 170 others and prompted more than $130 million in fines and nearly $2 billion in victim payouts. Among the fatalities were many of the facility’s senior-level managers, who were meeting nearby. 

The Texas City accident further amplified the call for increased system redundancy, including deployment of higher levels of automation across all aspects of emergency communications, while emphasizing the need to establish a clearly defined chain of command to compensate for the absence of senior managers.

More recently, the 2010 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon offshore production rig in the Gulf of Mexico is cited as the largest accidental oil spill in history, and the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history. Eleven workers died in the explosion. 

The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011 seriously damaged industrial facilities along the northeastern coast of Japan. Several major petroleum processing operations and the Fukishima Daiichi and Fukishima Daini nuclear power plants sustained catastrophic damage. The massive amount of radioactive water that was released created significant problems affecting the cleanup process, which is expected to take decades to complete.

The Role of Technology

Automated technology can improve the early-warning capabilities of vulnerable large-scale facilities. High-tech remote sensing devices, for example, are able to warn of chemical spills and gas leaks, while remote fire-alarm inputs can detect heat and combustion. Widespread use of remote video cameras supports efforts to identify security breaches and discourage acts of terrorism.

These sensors provide critical, life-saving information to employees and management by automating both early warning and the required response procedures. Beyond detecting dangerous situations and issuing warnings, remote sensors provide specific and otherwise invaluable information on immediate steps employees should take in the event of a fast-developing crisis. 

Automated messaging and signaling systems capable of triggering emergency action plans can reduce response times to milliseconds. This encompasses establishing effective, secure lines of communication with employees and managers, first responders, municipal safety officials and government agencies over a variety of communication channels and devices.  The automation of initial alert messaging expedites the steps that must be taken immediately, while eliminating the possibility of mixed messaging that could cause confusion and panic in a crisis.

Desktop communications fulfill the need to provide redundancy for the entire emergency alerting/notification process, while improving facilities' ability to respond quickly in a crisis. Interoperable software platforms substantially enhance communication capabilities, providing instantaneous access to general alarm and public address systems, outdoor warning devices and cellular and landline telephones, while taking full advantage of today’s smartphone technology.  

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Additionally, desktop communications use instant messaging and other media to circumvent the clutter of workplace environments and ensure distribution of alerts/notifications when time is precious.

The network-based communication platforms being incorporated into today's most-advanced emergency communication systems support a host of innovative software applications. Examples include apps that give managers remote and secure access to all modes of communication, as well as automated scenario management tools designed to accelerate decision-making in a crisis.

Centralized Control

A crucial element of facility crisis planning – especially with regard to fast-breaking emergencies – is immediate designation of a command post to exercise centralized control and coordination of the response process. Similar to automating initial warning alerts, designating a single source for issuing accurate instructions offers the inherent advantage of limiting distribution of misinformation and rumors that can promote panic or confusion.

A clearly defined chain of command to implement emergency response procedures also is essential to any effective emergency response strategy. During a crisis, there will be little time to determine who has decision-making authority, which might delay taking the action necessary to save lives and protect property

Final Thoughts

Incorporating automated technology wherever possible has become a key strategy of emergency preparedness.  Automation streamlines response and addresses the need for failsafe redundancy across all vital communication, warning and emergency procedures.

An effective facility emergency strategy must begin with an action plan that addresses every possible scenario. Only then can a detailed assessment be made of the necessary procedures, resources and employee training curricula that need to be put in place. 

It is imperative to develop awareness among all employees and management of potential crisis scenarios, and the corresponding need for preparedness and vigilance. And finally, effective response to a rapidly unfolding crisis will remain heavily dependent on scheduled system maintenance, and testing of safety procedures.

Scott Cassidy is director of engineering for Federal Signal Corp.'s Safety and Security Group, which provides integrated safety and security solutions for industrial, enterprise and institutional facilities including hospitals, schools and university campuses.

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