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Developing Comprehensive Emergency Response Plans

If your emergency response plan basically is a blueprint for evacuating the building in the event of a fire, emergency planning expert William Coffey has a question for you: Is evacuation always the right solution?

Obviously, evacuation isn't a one size-fits-all emergency response plan. Tornadoes, chemical spills and acts of workplace violence are among the scenarios that might call for an employer to issue a shelter-in-place rather than evacuate the building.

In the case of a workplace shooting, for example, evacuating the building only gives the perpetrator "more hostages and more moving targets," Coffey explained during a June 14 presentation at the American Society of Safety Engineers' Professional Development Conference and Exposition in Seattle.

Coffey, who is the owner of WRC Safety and Risk Consultants of Seven Valleys, Pa., wasn't pointing fingers at safety professionals. In fact, he pointed out that OSHA 29 CFR 1910.38(c) – Emergency Action Plan – includes at least three references to evacuation, while 29 CFR 1901 Subpart E – Exit Routes, Emergency Action Plans and Fire Prevention Plans – also leans toward equating emergency response with fire and evacuation.

"We're pretty good at evacuations," Coffey said.

Two Options: Plan for Everything or Be Flexible

Coffey noted that safety professionals must think in terms that are more comprehensive than just evacuations – which requires examining the options for how employers plan for emergencies.

One option is developing an emergency response plan that prepares for every possible contingency. However, Coffey asserted that such an approach is unrealistic and unworkable.

To illustrate his point, he asked audience members if they had ever considered Bhopal, Oklahoma City and 9/11 before they occurred – and if so, could they have planned for these events?

"Ten or 15 years ago, we didn't have the term 'going postal,' Coffey said. "Now it's a term that's in common use."

Instead of trying to anticipate every possible scenario, Coffey recommends developing a number of flexible plans that can be adapted to various emergency situations.

He noted that the public-sector emergency response community already has begun taking such an approach with its Incident Command System, which:

  • Outlines responsibilities and authorities;
  • Is flexible and can be expanded or contracted as needed; and
  • Extends past the emergency all the way through recovery.
  • The Incident Command System, Coffey said, is a good example of the importance of flexibility in emergency response planning.

"If I don't get hung up on 'if A happens then we do B,' I can adapt my plan to whatever the situation is," Coffey said.

Common Elements

Coffey recommended that employers' emergency response plans include the following basic elements:

  • Evacuation – How to get everyone out;
  • Shelter-in-place – How to keep everyone in;
  • Medical emergency – How to get help to someone;
  • Power outage – What to do in the event of a loss of power and how to keep everyone in place for a period of time;
  • Lockdown – How to keep everyone separated "to minimize hostages and minimize casualties" when, for example, a disgruntled employee is armed and in the building;
  • Business continuity – How to stay in business after an emergency; and
  • Community emergency – What to do when a community emergency prompts the work force to leave.

Questions Have the Answer

Coffey noted that he prefers the Socratic method of teaching – which involves asking questions to encourage students to draw their own conclusions – and told safety professionals early on in his presentation that "you are the experts."

While each emergency response plan will address situations unique to each business and facility, Coffey said that there are fairly universal considerations that each plan must address. And the best way to address those considerations, Coffey said, is by asking questions.

Perhaps the first question that needs to be answered for your emergency response plan is: How do we sound an alarm for each plan?

"If employees cannot differentiate which plan is being put into effect, the plans are useless," Coffey asserted.

Coffey explained that employers can distinguish one plan from another plan – for example, a shelter-in-place as opposed to an evacuation – by using different tones and pitches or a combination of audio and visual alarms. Another options would be to issue a radio notification to all supervisors to begin a shelter-in-place because a tornado warning has been issued for the area.

The logistics of each facility will dictate the best alarm options, Coffey said. But one thing every employer should be wary of is the potential for confusion in an emergency situation.

"If there are only minor differences in the various alarms used to initialize emergency planning, it is quite possible that an employee could become confused and begin initiating the wrong plan," Coffey said.

Other key questions include:

  • How do we call for help (internally and externally)?
  • How do we account for people?
  • Where do employees meet?
  • How do we get help to people?
  • How do we decide it is safe to return?
  • How do we communicate it is safe to return?
  • In addition, there will be specific questions that need to be addressed within each plan. For example, in the event of an evacuation:
  • What happens if employees have to stand outside in a blinding snowstorm or rainstorm?
  • Have you accounted for what employees will do while potentially waiting several hours for firefighters to finish? Do you have a plan for how you will clear the employees from the area and how you will notify other shifts?
  • Did you need to evacuate the whole facility? Can you only evacuate part of the facility?
  • Do you have a plan for informing employees of exit routes that might be blocked?

"We might not know all the answers, but we better ask the right questions," Coffey said.

Communication is Key

A common thread among all of these questions is communication – which, Coffey believes, is the most important element of any emergency response plan.

Coffey pointed out that the Incident Command System is built upon the concept that communication is vital to the success of emergency response, and he noted that the system includes a lexicon of common emergency response terms. To illustrate why defining common terms is important in emergency response, he explained that the directive "charge the line" could have three completely different meanings for police officers, firefighters and utility workers.

"If it can be misinterpreted, it will," Coffey said.

One way employers can foster communication in their emergency response plans is by providing adequate training. When it comes to training, Coffey offers this advice:

  • More responsibility requires more training – For those who have specific responsibilities in the plan, they will need more training on how to meet those responsibilities.
  • If people will be expected to make decisions, they must have a chance to practice – People who will be making decisions in an emergency must have an opportunity to practice these skills in a safe, controlled environment. (Coffey noted that, in his mind, practice = training.)
  • Use the "KISS" ("Keep it Simple, Sir") method – Human beings might freeze in an emergency situation. "Training, having the procedure and getting people used to doing it stops people from freezing," Coffey said.
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