WHEN TO RUN. WHEN TO HIDE.
Before Sept. 11, the evacuation process required neither preparation or explaining. What the attack on the World Trade Center dramatized, however, was that without additional planning and process, evacuating can be more complicated and dangerous than anyone imagined.
Although simple in design, the evacuation process is often complicated by the severity of an event, the emotional state of those who are evacuating, available leadership at the time of the event, lack of communication and direction, building issues, the loss of electricity and any ensuing damage that may cause obstruction.
This article outlines best practices and planning to support and facilitate the evacuation process in both a non-catastrophic and catastrophic event.
Working among and collaborating with evacuees and New York building managers after Sept. 11 quickly revealed a laundry list of hindsight precautionary measures — ensure direction and communication to staff, be prepared with the appropriate tools, and empower staff to make their own decisions regarding their safety.
Defining catastrophic vs. non-catastrophic events
What defines the initiating trigger of the evacuation process? Is it direction or instinct? To help staff through this question, it is helpful to define events as either catastrophic or non-catastrophic. A catastrophic event has a direct impact to the building and poses direct risk to its inhabitants. In a catastrophic event, the building is no longer safe to inhabit and the physical safety of staff is at risk.
In a non-catastrophic event, there is no impact to the physical safety of the staff or the building. The building is safe to inhabit or at least safe to inhabit until after evacuation has occurred.
In a catastrophic event the crisis management team may not have time to meet, so staff may need to make their own decisions as to whether evacuation is necessary. In most cases, the evacuation process begins immediately after the event has occurred. In cases of catastrophic events that cannot be seen, heard or smelled by staff, building management may initiate evacuation of the building through the public address system. In a non-catastrophic event, the trigger to the evacuation process is a communication from the crisis management team. There is time to make the decision and contact staff regarding the team’s direction.
Firm-specific disaster recovery scenarios
The scenario is the basis behind a firm’s specific disaster recovery process. The disaster recovery industry accepts the following general scenario definitions:
Denial of physical access Staff is not permitted into the building, however, there is no physical damage to the computing environment. Users may access the production computing environment from some remote facility.
Full loss of physical assets
Complete or partial loss of building, loss of company data center assets
Loss of computing facilities due to malicious intent There is direct physical damage to the site’s computing facility. Risk must be defined based on loss of systems and direct impact to the mission-critical business process to determine whether to invoke the disaster recovery site or not.
Complete loss or damage to the physical building There is direct physical damage to not only the site’s computing facility but the building as a whole. The primary focus is safety and accountability of staff.
If evacuation is not an option, staff must stay inside until otherwise directed by city and/or state.
During the blackout of Aug. 14, 2003, many corporate staff did not evacuate or chose to return to their building once it was realized that the event was more non-catastrophic than catastrophic. Many building managers permitted those who had security access to their buildings to stay, but the message was clear: this was the choice of the individual.
It may be safer for those who are in a building that is impacted by an explosive to leave immediately to avoid further injury. However, since staff may not know whether the bomb was “dirty” and may evacuate without crisis management direction, the evacuation process could impact staff safety. In this case the process requires additional tools to avoid direct contact (ingestion/touching/inhalation) with radiation particles; an enclosed place for staff to avoid dispersed and airborne material; and a dirty bomb educational program.
It is recommended that staff who reside in buildings not immediately impacted by a bomb stay inside.
The crisis management team makes four decisions:
To evacuate staff;
Invocation of the disaster recovery process; and
Return to production business processes and procedures.
The crisis management team membership should comprise all heads of business in the firm, including back office personnel, managers, security, finance, technology, human resources, marketing and business continuity/disaster recovery facilitators.
The firm should meet with their building management to understand what processes they will invoke in case of catastrophic or non-catastrophic events and with insurance provider(s) to understand their rights with regards to evacuation or inside occupancy. Any process defined by the building will impact company-specific evacuation procedures. Working with building management will help to determine what the management’s relation is to local police, fire departments and office of emergency management. Building management can also describe their processes for evacuation and how they notify tenants of when to evacuate. The crisis management team should ask what kinds of emergency tools the building management has on-site. Does the building store first aid or emergency supplies for their staff? Their tenants?
The assembly point
In an emergency, there is a concern that staff may feel that they are forced to follow a process that that could potentially put their lives in further danger. The assembly point supports the staff accountability process. This is the only way the firm can identify who evacuated and is safe; who may still be in the building; and who evacuated and may be in need of medical attention.
Each member of the crisis management team should be provided with both a flag and arm-band that presents the firm’s colors or emblems.
There should always be two assembly points — one for shelter from external elements, and an alternate site in case of obstruction. One site should be reachable through evacuation from the front of the building, the second through evacuation from the back of the building. The site should also be large enough to accommodate the staff along with the staff of other companies to avoid fighting for space. If a firm has two buildings within close proximity, staff should not bypass the assembly point to go to the non-impacted building, as the second building may succumb to the same trigger that impacted the first building.
The staff accountability process
The staff accountability process permits staff to report their evacuation status. This process saves lives and is the responsibility of every person. If first responders know that they do not have to travel to certain floors, it can save their lives and permits them to focus on the safety of others who may still be in the building and require their help. If the staff accountability process is not performed, information about missing and dead may be erroneous. Without being able to determine who is alive, who is receiving medical help, or who is missing or dead, the business runs the risk of being overwhelmed with calls from families who have no other place to go for information.
Methods of accounting for staff
Because everyone’s mind-set differs during an evacuation, it is important to create different ways for staff to communicate back to the firm. Teaching employees to place a business card with their department, building number and floor number printed in their wallet or with their security card will result in a more organized evacuation. As employees arrive at the assembly point, they can hand off their card to account for who is out of the building.
An incoming voice mail box set up with an emergency number may also present an option to report evacuation status. Any member of the staff who may hear that a colleague is not on the list, but who they saw on the street, may help find them with information as to where they were last seen. Families and staff may be directed to a particular number created for this purpose. Messages left by text-messaging and/or e-mail also help.
A public Web site can also provide a listing of evacuees to the public. This permits direct access to information when access to the firm’s intranet environment may not be available as a result of the event. With both a password-protected area and public area, the firm can direct both sectors to the appropriate information. This helps keep the firm’s business number for business use; the firm’s emergency number for the receipt of important messages between management and staff; and provides families and friends with a place to go for information. The site should never print the names of those who have died.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrea Houtkin is senior consultant in the business continuity and disaster recovery field for Houtkin & Associates, which performs technical deployment and process engineering.
TIPS FOR THE EVACUATION PROCESS
Leave your desk immediately and take only essential personal belongings. (Keeping important items in one area on your desk will prepare you for a quick evacuation). If it is unsafe to leave the building, stay inside and follow bio-chemical/radiation procedures.
Do not change shoes. Take off uncomfortable shoes and walk barefoot or in sock/stockings.
Do not run through the building.
Exit via the nearest stairwell.
Because evacuating staff may not know if a ‘dirty bomb’ has exploded, it may be well to ask staff to put on their 94-particulate masks and goggles while in the stairwell.
Walk single-file to the lobby to avoid obstruction at the point of egress to the lobby. Walking single-file down the stairwell can avoid a stressful and potentially dangerous situation.
After exiting the building, leave the area immediately.
Go to the assembly point. Present your card to your manager or member of the crisis management team.
So management can account for the fact that you exited the building
For medical attention
To receive direction from management
Always go to the primary assembly point first (Plan A) unless:
Directed otherwise by management
Your access to the primary assembly point is obstructed
If both assembly points are obstructed, go home
Go in the opposite direction of the danger.
Do not speak with anyone outside of the firm’s community regarding the event or firm status