Elements of Effective Evacuation Plans

Oct. 23, 2002
How to develop the step-by-step plan that will ensure the safety of everyone and everything at your facility in the event of an emergency.

For everyone to act safely and effectively during disasters and emergencies, evacuation plans must be developed, documented and thoroughly rehearsed. Well-written plans provide accurate information about possible emergencies, detail steps for protecting employees and others at the facility during and after an incident, and list procedures for minimizing damage and downtime.

Gathering Information

To begin, planners need accurate information about the layout and processes taking place in the facility, as well as any harmful products stored on site. Looking at facility blueprints and material safety data sheets for stocked chemicals will help planners determine the potential for processes or products at the facility to cause harm to employees or the environment.

In addition to in-facility emergencies, it also is important to consider area topography and the possibility of natural and manmade disasters when creating emergency plans. In some areas, flood plans may be necessary; others may need to plan for rolling blackouts, tornados or earthquakes. When considering emergencies that are beyond your immediate

control, consider potential harm from neighboring facilities as well. If, for example, a chemical plant is next door, knowing that company's hazard potential and evacuation procedures is advisable.

Guidance on potential hazards should be available through your local emergency planning commission (LEPC). Local authorities, such as the LEPC, fire marshals, hazmat teams and sometimes even hospitals, can be a great help for anyone developing, amending or coordinating an emergency response plan.

Involving outside organizations also can help planners uncover and coordinate outside resources that are readily available in their community. Often, personnel from these organizations will volunteer their time to help facilities develop response plans. Many also will assist in or help coordinate drill operations with company employees.

Covering All the Bases

An ideal plan outlines step-by-step procedures that ensure safety for everyone and everything at the facility, no matter what the emergency. Because different emergencies require different resources, it is best to outline emergency-specific procedures. Stating "workers will turn off machines and everyone will evacuate" is not a sufficient plan and may not fit all situations.

For example, if there is a chemical release, evacuation will be different than if there is a prolonged blackout. The chemical release may affect only a portion of the facility, but be very urgent. Getting people out of the area in a timely manner is likely to be more important that shutting down every computer or process. A prolonged blackout is typically more of a nuisance than an emergency; however, it will likely affect everyone at the facility, and evacuation will be slower due to limited visibility and a lesser sense of urgency.

Depending on the nature and extent of an incident, the facility may need to shut down operations to ensure safety. The sequence of shutdown procedures, specifying personnel and backup personnel to perform these functions, should be included in the response plan. Among the elements to consider are power generators, gas lines, fuel systems, flammable process lines, tanks, electrical systems and computers.

Ensuring Life Safety

Ask any good emergency responder and they'll tell you that life safety is their No. 1 priority. Firefighters, for example, don't go into a burning house to save "things." They go in to find or rescue people.

In a facility situation, life safety can be multifaceted. Life safety means that when the danger calls for an evacuation, there is a specified plan to get everyone out of the affected area. It also means that there are procedures to ensure the safety of anyone who is going to mitigate the danger.

The first step in devising plans that will get everyone out safely and in the shortest amount of time is establishing exit routes that are clear and usable. Aisles must be kept clear and clean, be wide enough to accommodate personnel, be clearly marked and be well-lit. Unkempt floors and dimly lit stairwells will almost guarantee injuries during an evacuation. If anyone will require assistance to evacuate, this should be addressed in the plans. Some companies use a "buddy system" to ensure that anyone with a special need will be assisted during the evacuation.

Once the exit routes are planned, employees will need a designated safe area to reassemble. For an emergency such as a fire, the safe area may be the parking lot outside the facility away from fire hydrants and emergency access routes. For greater emergencies such as toxic chemical releases or a leaking gas main, auxiliary shelters may be a consideration. Poor weather conditions also can play a factor in evacuations. If the evacuation will be for an extended time and the weather is not favorable, backup facilities such as buses, trailers or other temporary shelters may be an option if employees not directly involved in the response are going to remain on site.

Plans should specify who will perform head counts at the accumulation area to verify that everyone has been safely evacuated. If anyone is unaccounted for, plans need to spell out the procedures for finding these individuals.

Rehearse It

Before drilling a response plan, estimate the amount of time it will take to evacuate the facility. Keep in mind that multiple tasks will be occurring simultaneously. Allot a realistic time for these things to happen. It may take five minutes to shut down a process under the best conditions. An emergency may double the amount of time needed. Conferring with process operators will help planners set a realistic time frame.

After the company's plan has taken shape, it's time to train everyone. Each employee should be given specific instructions about what they are to do, where they are supposed to go, when to go, how to get there and what, if anything, to bring with them. After everyone has been given that information and their questions have been answered, drills should be scheduled and conducted.

During the drill, evacuation times should be verified. After the drill, planners should host a meeting or forum to give everyone involved the opportunity to present and discuss any problems encountered. Perhaps office workers wearing high-heeled shoes found it difficult to descend a steep set of stairs that are a designated part of their exit route. Were any aisles blocked? Drills and subsequent communication will help determine if there are any problems with the plans.

After the initial drills, it is prudent to drill every so often to ensure employees remember their training and to make sure the plans still will work in an emergency. Variables, such as smoke, a mock fire blocking certain exits or missing employees, can be thrown in to the drills to test planned contingencies.

Safe and Sound

In addition to life safety, plans should include provisions for facility security during emergencies. Sadly, every company must acknowledge that theft and vandalism are facts of life. When employees are told that they have to leave everything, they are likely to be concerned about their belongings and the work they are performing. That concern can translate into delays in the evacuation.

Company assets also must be protected in the event of an actual emergency. Locking doors, gates and fences seems like a natural step, but these details often can be neglected in an emergency unless the responsibility is assigned to someone and is spelled out in the response plan. If pathways are to be locked, it is important to specify when they will be locked. For example, if locks prevent entry from both directions, verification that everyone has gotten out needs to be made before the doors or gates are locked. The names of personnel with keys should be noted in the plan in case responders need to have their keys to access the facility to mitigate the emergency.

Back to Work

In the event that an emergency occurs, plans should detail disaster recovery and restoration procedures. This part of the plan should list what needs to be done after events such as a fire, earthquake, chemical release or explosion. For example, exit routes may need to be re-established, utilities inspected, HVAC systems cleaned, spill supplies restocked and alarms tested. Insurance companies often can provide detailed lists to assist planners on this issue.

After the plan has been created and drilled, review it with officials from the local municipality to ensure everyone's response will be coordinated and that lines of communication are well-established. Keep in mind that your local agencies have an awesome job to perform in large emergencies. Good planning and coordination will help them know what they can expect from the facility and their employees.

About the author: Karen D. Hamel is a technical specialist for New Pig Corp. She is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and has more than nine years of experience helping customers find solutions to their environmental, health and safety issues. She is HAZWOPER technician level-certified and serves on the Blair County, Pa. LEPC. She can be reached at (800) HOT-HOGS (468-4647) or by e-mail at [email protected].

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