Emergency Planning's Five Key Steps

Is your business ready to survive the worst possible emergency?

Emergencies strike without warning. An explosion and severe fire sweeps through an office. An earthquake shakes hundreds of computers from high storage. A sudden power outage shuts down critical equipment or processing lines. A flood submerges perishable products with contaminated floodwater.

When an emergency hits, your response in the next minute could mean the difference between business property survival and disastrous loss. And survival depends upon your own readiness.

No matter what your business involves an office building, a health care facility, a manufacturing plant, a shopping mall, a college campus or a warehouse you need an emergency response plan, one that assures your organization will survive the worst possible emergency.

Are You Ready?

If your emergency response plan is effective and current, you're probably in good shape. But it can't be just a policy on paper. And don't assume insurance covers it. If your customers have to go elsewhere for the products or raw materials they need, no insurance policy will bring them back.

This article will serve as a guide for creating an effective plan or updating an existing one. Once you have built your plan and have trained your emergency response team (ERT) to carry out the plan, your answers to the following questions should be yes:

Does your plan list step-by-step training procedures, response actions and job assignments for the ERT? Training is essential. After all, you will expect the ERT to safeguard your business property and environment without putting themselves at risk.

Is the plan current? Are ERT members still on staff? Is their training appropriate for current and future business changes? Do back-ups exist for vacation and sickness? Are positions covered for all shifts?

It Pays Off!

By averting or minimizing devastating property losses, emergency response plans protect jobs and business profits, even in extreme scenarios like this one....

In a large chemical plant, a chemical reaction overpressurized a 1,000 gal. (3,785 liter) stainless steel reactor triggering an explosion. Vessel failure released hot flammable liquids flashing to vapor and exploding inside a chemical processing area.

Seconds after the explosion, the ERT went into action. They called the fire department and directed them to the emergency site from the front gate - an action that is too often delayed. The fire protection specialist, who was outside the building when the explosion struck, radioed the powerhouse to activate the emergency paging system.

The ERT began isolating utilities to the building to ensure the safety of responding personnel. They also began to search for company personnel and rescue them. After all were accounted for, they manned fire hoses and provided final fire extinguishment. Personnel made sure the fire pump was working and the sprinkler control valves were open.

Prompt ERT response and the work of local firefighting agencies plus fully operating sprinkler protection and special protection systems limited damage to the building, adjacent equipment and surrounding tank farms and buildings.

But it was the company's response plan that really set the stage for this success story. The plan required step-by-step ERT training and plenty of backup. An ERT supervisor had been assigned for each operating shift and four alternates were available. All personnel and alternates were trained in incipient firefighting, spill containment and salvage. Trained materials handlers were also available.

Assignments were clear-cut and well rehearsed during training drills. One person had been assigned to remain in the boiler house and coordinate outside communications. Another person was designated to drive the emergency vehicle to the scene. These and many other details had been spelled out in the response plan.

The Flip Side

Unfortunately, too many companies put their facilities at risk by neglecting a thorough emergency response program. The following two losses demonstrate how chaotic response can easily increase property damage.

When a fire ignited at a sawmill, no one was ready. Personnel delayed calling the fire department for 20 minutes. Fire pump operation was essential, but no one checked it or monitored the sprinkler control valve. The presence of a control valve or pump operator might have decreased the time required to reactivate sprinklers during a second fire. The loss cost more than $2 million.

When a major flood inundated a sawmill, no one was ready even though flooding had been predicted for several weeks. The ERT did not monitor weather for warning of intense storms. They did not relocate pumps, controls and supplies. They did not assign priorities to decide order of items to be moved based on replacement cost and relative value. They also failed to determine availability of personnel to relocate items. The loss cost about $1.5 million.

Success in Five Steps

Planning starts with careful research and forward thinking management. The steps are simple, but it takes time to find out what you could be facing and determine resources you need both inside the company and beyond.

Step One Assess your needs

Certain strengths and weaknesses at your site will either help or hinder your emergency response. It's important to know what they are. Find out:

  • What fixed fire protection is provided? Is it in service?
  • Do employees know the locations of fire extinguishers and fire hose stations and how to use them?
  • What processing or storage hazards exist?
  • What type of natural hazard is the site exposed to? (There is probably more than one.)
  • What types of materials are stockpiled and ready for use in case a natural hazard strikes?
  • Are there staffing or equipment limitations?
  • Have you educated and trained key personnel?
  • Are drills and periodic staff training provided?

Next, evaluate the impact of the hazards on your property, the general public, the environment or your ability to resume business after an emergency. Examples of events include: fire, floods, hail storms, winter freeze-ups, roof collapse, windstorms and earthquakes.

How could each one affect your day-to-day business operations? Consult with organizations outside the company, like municipal emergency planners or loss control consultants, to help you identify natural hazards common to your area.

Carefully research the history of emergencies at your facility. This can be very helpful for developing strategies. In the past, how did the response plan work as a result of incidents like hazardous materials spills, fire protection impairments and utility interruptions, riots and civil commotion, sabotage, bomb threats and poor equipment maintenance? Was the cause related to human error? What worked well? What could be improved? What changes would you make if it happens again?

Prioritize all the emergencies your facility has experienced from the most to the least severe. How frequently might they reoccur and how severely?

Develop strategies. Natural hazard emergency response can vary considerably depending upon the type of occurrence. Take a close look at the nature of each one and develop specific actions you will need to minimize the hazards. Ask your loss control consultant to help you identify each exposure and develop each step of response.

Use internal resources. They can be invaluable for this challenging effort. An Emergency Response Planning Committee not necessarily the people who will respond to the emergency can bring expertise from areas such as

  • operations
  • maintenance
  • transportation
  • engineering
  • public relations
  • risk management
  • environmental health and safety
  • human resources
  • security
  • legal
  • labor relations

Others on staff often make good emergency responders and help reduce training time. Some can help train people or serve as leaders. Examples are volunteer firefighters and heavy equipment drivers. Crane operators, plumbers and electricians can be valuable, too.

Take a look at anything offsite that could expose your facility to emergencies. These hazards (also called "exposures") can be related to environmental problems, neighboring properties, and limited outside access to your property, such as roadway obstructions or dirt roads that easily become impassible during a rainstorm. Other examples of offsite hazards include poor or interrupted utility supplies, seasonal brush or forest fires, or frequent arson strikes. Security-related problems on and offsite can affect your facility. In what ways could each affect your facility?

Identify combustible or lightweight construction and other features such as the age of your building. Does each building meet existing code requirements? Have they been well maintained? Has there been a history of roof, wall or floor leaks?

Identify operations from raw materials coming in the door, to transportation and distribution of finished goods like these:

  • Hazardous materials used in processing such as flammable liquids; toxic, corrosive or reactive materials; and combustible metals;
  • Fixed equipment and storage hazards such as hydraulic oil-operated equipment, dust- or lint-producing equipment, flammable or combustible coolants, vapor or fume producing materials;
  • Fuels and other energy sources used onsite such as natural gas, propane, electrical, flammable as well as other prepiped and cylinder gases;
  • Warehouse storage (products/materials stored) and types of storage like rack, solid or palletized;
  • Critical production equipment that would need special consideration during an emergency; and
  • Access to rail, truck, and over-the-road transportation to move products and equipment.

Identify protection including:

  • Fire protection available such as public water supplies, fire pumps and tanks, booster pumps, gravity tanks, and nearby, open bodies of water;
  • Types of fixed automatic fire protection equipment such as sprinklers, gaseous suppression, foam, dry chemical and water mist;
  • Types of manual suppression equipment like fire hose stations and fire extinguishers;
  • Levees and flood walls;
  • Sump pumps, curbs and drains;
  • Sand, sandbags, portable barriers, emergency generators and portable pumps.

Step Two Create a written policy

This should contain three statements:

  • The Purpose declares the company's intent and objectives. It also specifies planned limitations to responding to certain site-specific incidents.
  • The Policy outlines the plan and top management's commitment. Review the plan at least annually to assure that changing conditions are included and kept current, and that personnel are available and qualified to respond.
  • Responsibility designates people by name or title who generate and maintain the emergency response plan.

Step Three Plan levels of response

Set up an onsite ERT. Create specific job assignments similar to the ones below and provide training accordingly. Some leading corporations, like airports or big manufacturing facilities, might use much larger staffs. A smaller business comprising maybe a warehouse and office might need only one person for the entire task.

The Emergency Coordinator launches the plan, and organizes training for the ERT to respond efficiently during and after an emergency. Major responsibilities are to analyze each department's site-specific hazards, outline all scenarios every emergency could take, strategize protection, and determine responsibilities for each member of the ERT. To fulfill these responsibilities, the coordinator also:

  • Arranges pre-incident planning with the fire service or other public agencies to set up a plan of action in event of a fire or other emergency;
  • Establishes step-by-step response procedures for the ERT in handling all emergencies, particularly fire, windstorm, earthquake and snow storms;
  • Directs emergency actions during the emergency;
  • Makes sure the other ERT members are in place and performing their assigned duties; and
  • Assures that emergency materials are available (for natural hazards) prior to the specific season. Sandbags, sand, plywood, nails, snow shovels, snow blowers and portable pumps are typical examples but your list will likely go beyond those.

The Notifier calls the fire department his or her first priority. This person also keeps a current list of ERT personnel and alternates, contacts ERT personnel for all emergencies and notifies outside personnel such as fire, medical and rescue operations.

The Sprinkler Control Valve Operator knows where all valves are located and is responsible for operating them in the event of a fire. As long as it is safe to do so, this person:

  • Goes to the valve that controls sprinklers protecting the fire area, makes sure the valve is open by physically testing it and stands by it until the person in charge orders it shut (essential step);
  • Examines sprinkler control valves for damage after an earthquake, explosion or building collapse; and
  • Closes only those valves needed to isolate broken piping, after checking with the person in charge and following all proper fire protection impairment procedures.

The Fire Pump Operator goes to the pump room when the fire alarm sounds and checks that the pump has started automatically. If not, he or she starts the pump and keeps it operating until instructed to shut it down by the person in charge. It's important for this person to be familiar with the operation and care of the pump, and trained in starting pumps manually and understanding the importance of pumps in relation to fire protection.

The Pipe Fitter knows about the piping distribution networks and can shut off supplies of flammable gases, liquids and other hazardous materials in an emergency. Duties:

  • Know where primary and secondary shutoffs are located and how they operate.
  • Keep drains clear and restore sprinkler protection where necessary.
  • Isolate, drain and repair any piping damaged by previous windstorms, explosions, collapses or earthquakes.
  • Be familiar with equipment controls.

The Salvage Team gets the facility back in business as soon as possible after an emergency. Duties:

  • Be able and ready to start salvage during and after the emergency. Actions should be immediate. Damage can worsen as time passes.
  • Know how to salvage and clean equipment and stock.
  • Concentrate on valuable stock and equipment. Mopping up to remove dampness and drying out wet areas are typical tasks.
  • Give priority to any major damage to vital equipment or processes.

It's important to contact contractors for repairs and rebuilding. Suppliers of spare parts should be immediately notified.

Watch Service personnel are a very important part of the ERT, because they are often the only ones around when the facility is closed or when most personnel are offsite. These are the times watch services or security personnel will be required to fill ERT positions. They should receive the same training as the ERT.

  • Know the procedures during and after an emergency and follow them carefully.
  • Sound the fire alarm.
  • Notify the fire service in event of fire.
  • Check sprinkler control valves and fire pumps.
  • Direct fire service personnel to the area of fire origin.
  • Notify facility officials.

Firefighting Teams, typically used in larger organizations, are selected and trained to fight a fire until the fire service arrives or until the fire grows beyond their level of training. Trained personnel must:

  • Know where fire extinguishers and hose stations are located and how to operate them.
  • Know the types of extinguishers to use on different kinds of fires and how to operate each type of extinguisher. Extinguisher types include carbon dioxide (and other gaseous suppression agents such as Halon), dry chemical, foam, pump tank and stored pressure water-filled.
  • Receive training on the use of hose lines to handle and operate them quickly, efficiently and safely.
  • Understand the function of fire doors. Periodically make sure all of them operate properly. Make sure they have closed properly during the emergency.

The Electrician may be essential to larger companies. The Electrician must:

  • Know the location of all switches, portable generators, extension cords and emergency power equipment in the assigned area.
  • Be thoroughly trained on the potential electrical hazards during a fire or other emergency.
  • Be accountable for shutting down electrical fans or handling ventilating equipment according to a prearranged plan. Shutting off the HVAC is important for eliminating a fresh supply of air to the fire and preventing smoke, soot and heat from spreading throughout the property.
  • Be able to set up temporary power or lighting if utility power is lost.
  • Be able to cut off power, in event of a flood to basements, ground floors or below grade areas.

Prefire Planning. One of the most important parts of developing a response plan is your prefire plan with the public fire service. Good prefire planning involves conducting a site visit with the fire service on your property so that if an emergency strikes, your personnel and firefighters will act as a team. Firefighters need to be familiar with the layout and hazards of your facility. It's important for everyone involved to know exactly who does what, where and when.

Throughout the site visit, you will need a site plan showing the layout of the property and a checklist of items involving the level of response both your staff and firefighters will need. A certain amount of coordinated training might be involved.

Step Four Train your personnel

Educate personnel for each level of response you need for the firefighting team. It's important to establish drills with the onsite team and coordinate them with the public fire service and other outside agencies. The ERT should also be trained to respond to natural hazards before and after they strike.

Step Five Do the audits

Changes will occur and, as they do, they need to be well managed. Audits of your equipment, storage and property help determine past and evolving changes and future plans. It's important to do at least two things:

  1. Plan audit intervals. They should be done at least once a year.
  2. Develop a process to assure that changes in construction, occupancy, protection and exposures will be accounted for. Make sure they are communicated to the person in charge of the Emergency Response team.

Final word

Controlling a loss by preventing or minimizing damage is the major goal of your emergency response plan. Doing it right depends upon taking two assumptions seriously:

1. An emergency will occur at some point in the history of your company. Never assume it happens to someone else. Why should it?

2. Readiness isn't possible without management commitment. Management's dedication to conserving business property is essential if management expects emergency responders at the site to be committed to their jobs.

A well-protected property equals a safe business environment for everyone!

About the author: Michael Morganti is the customized training manager for FM Global. He holds an associate's degree in electronics from the University of Akron. He is a Master Business Continuity Professional (MBCP), a member of the Certification Commission and an instructor for the Disaster Recovery Institute International. He is a member of the National Fire Protection Association's Education Division.

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