Facility emergency response plans identify specific types of hazards, risks and circumstances that could harm people or the environment. They also document the tools and tactics that will be used to prevent injuries or property damage. Skilled emergency response coordinators are a vital link between just having plans on paper and having emergency response practices that really work.
Emergency response coordinators are responsible for making decisions during emergencies. To do this well, they need to be properly trained and supported by management. Inherent leadership skills help in this position, but even the best leaders may still need to be taught skills such as coordinating response efforts with outside agencies and performing risk assessments. They also need opportunities to practice these skills during response drills and exercises.
Several EPA and OSHA standards require an emergency response coordinator or emergency contact to be listed in written plans. In some cases, back-up personnel must also be listed. The coordinator “should be responsible for assessing the situation to determine whether an emergency exists, activating the emergency procedures, overseeing emergency procedures, notifying and coordinating with outside emergency services, and directing the shutdown of utilities or plant operations, if necessary,” according to OSHA.
During safety trainings, emergency response drills and other exercises; the emergency response coordinator should be present and take an active role in coordinating and directing the drill. All employees need to know who this person is, as well as the identities of others who may have back-up roles during emergencies. Employees also need to know that when there is an emergency, this person will be coordinating response efforts and that (s)he has the authority to make decisions and give instruction or directions.
In larger facilities, emergency or evacuation wardens may be trained and assigned to assist the coordinator. Wardens can assist with various tasks such as helping the coordinator with evacuations, accounting for everyone after an evacuation or heading response teams as directed by the coordinator. For facilities that operate with two or more shifts, having trained wardens available during each shift can provide critical help, direction and support until the coordinator is able to take command of a situation.
Coordinators and wardens need to know how the facility is laid out, including evacuation routes, the locations of response equipment and any situations or hazardous areas that could complicate safe evacuations. If anyone at the facility will need assistance during an evacuation, they should create a buddy system to ensure that those individuals will have someone to assist them when the need arises. They also need to be kept updated on facility and personnel changes so that plans can be altered when necessary and employee rosters can be kept up-to-date for accurate accountability of personnel when there is an incident.
Ready for Response
Getting everyone out of the building is only one part of the equation. Coordinators need to be aware of hazards that exist at that facility as well as external situations that could cause emergencies, such as tornadoes or earthquakes. Coordinators should be involved with facility emergency response planning and risk assessments to help ensure that plans are comprehensive and modified as necessary to ensure that they will work in an emergency.
When an emergency situation arises, the coordinator will direct the shutdown of plant operations and utilities, if necessary. Because these actions often occur simultaneously with evacuations, the coordinator will need to work with the employees who have been trained to initiate shutdown operations so that they are comfortable with their duties, know how and where to evacuate after performing them and who to report successful shutdowns to.
Fire, police, emergency medical and other outside response agencies are often called for assistance during major emergencies. Coordinators should establish relationships with these agencies so that when there is an emergency, they are ready and able to work together. They should ensure that routes are clear for apparatus to arrive and that the outside responders are able to access areas quickly.
Outside agencies will expect the coordinator to be able to provide information about the emergency situation and to provide accountability for all employees. They will also expect the coordinator to have a working knowledge of incident command systems and how to operate under unified command. Many communities offer this training at no cost. It is often sponsored by a local emergency management agency, and is often attended by many emergency first responders, giving the coordinator another opportunity to work with these individuals.
The coordinator should also work with the facility’s public information officer to ensure that correct information is being supplied to the public, media and other stakeholders. In some situations, the coordinator may provide statements during press conferences.
Making it Work
To be successful, coordinators need to have a working knowledge of all of the facility’s operations as well as incident command and other nationally recognized response frameworks. This knowledge will allow coordinators to better evaluate the facility’s response plans and adapt employee response and evacuation training procedures so that they are more successful.
Coordinators also need to be given the opportunity to practice emergency evacuations and other response operations often. Full-scale exercises should take place at least annually. Smaller scale drills should happen more frequently. Drills help everyone to learn and be able to recall their roles during an emergency. They can also identify problems that need to be corrected so that the plans and procedures will work successfully during an actual emergency.
Training employees on their roles and responsibilities during emergencies and drilling those duties regularly help them to stay safe during emergencies and evacuations. Emergency response coordinators who have an active role in risk assessments, planning, training, drilling and executing the facility’s response plans help to ensure that everyone involved in an emergency response can perform their roles safely.
Karen Hamel, CSP, WACH, is a regulatory compliance professional and technical writer with New Pig Corp., a provider of solutions that help companies manage leaks, drips and spills.