Anyone in the fire service for an extended period of time has seen a number of changes in the type and level of services we provide. Our services continually evolve to address the needs of our customers and the hazards we now face. Some may even remember when hazmat was new to our response duties.
We now face many operational challenges. Has your fire and life safety education programs also evolved to meet the needs of your customers? Often a missing component in fire and life safety education is emergency preparedness and evacuation planning for both the business and residential community.
How prepared is your business community in the event of an emergency?
We are pretty sure they have some form of emergency plan that either their corporate office required or their insurance company required them to construct. However, the fire code you are enforcing likely has requirements for certain occupancies to have an approved fire safety and evacuation plan reviewed and approved by your fire department.
Some occupancies have evacuation drill frequency requirements. Nationally recognized fire codes require this only in certain occupancies because of the density and location of the building occupants. The primary focus of evacuation plans is to prepare to manage people and their specific role in evacuations.
If your fire department is not involved in the consultation of the development of such plans, you should consider your ability to assist them, as you are the local expert that can provide a tremendous resource to these businesses.
Since September 11, 2001 businesses have become more aware of their need to better prepare for emergencies. The risk of pandemic flu, natural disasters and potential terrorist threats has created a significant need for better information and coordination for management and staff.
Unfortunately, there are many general assumptions frequently made in boilerplate emergency and evacuation plans which may not take into account your fire department's operational functions, capabilities and needs. It makes sense for your department to take an active roll in helping formulate these plans for the most beneficial results possible.
One of the greatest benefits of this type of collaboration is allowing the crisis team of the business meet the fire department in a setting prior to an actual emergency. Coordinating the development and implementation of the plan before the incident occurs will only make our job of managing the incident easier.
It is fair to assume during an emergency; things really don't go well, even with the best of preparation. There is a saying in our job, "why plan when we can react so well?" Truth is, we do react pretty well most of the time, but as we know, preplanning is critical to our fire department's success. Preplanning for businesses that typically don't routinely face emergency situations and calamities is even more important.
These plans need to consider multiple threats to their business if they are going to be effective. Also, these plans need to be simple if they are going to be followed by lay-people. This can be really tough as multiple issues and threats become very difficult to boil down to simple explanation and definitions.
Threats can include but not be limited to:
- Weather issues such as blizzards, tornados, hurricanes, floods, etc.
- Power failures
- Terrorist attacks
- Pandemic flu
Some of these situations may involve evacuation or even relocation. Other incidents may require defending in place. Still others may mandate major modification of business practices including becoming a shelter or resource center depending upon the type of facility. As can be seen, there can be many considerations that most lay-people just don't have the technical expertise to develop and organize.
Your fire department can become a revered partner of local business leaders if time and expertise can be allocated to assist businesses with these plans. What we will caution is that this can be labor intensive and frustrating if not organized from the beginning.
Remember too, that if your presentation or assistance appears unorganized or half-hearted, the business will certainly develop a perception that this process is overwhelming and maybe even unachievable.
We recommend the following steps toward developing a successful emergency planning business outreach program:
Develop a list of the occupancies formally required by your adopted fire code or ones that you think can get the most benefit from this program.
Make contact with the person who has authority over the entire building or facility. This may be a property management company who can exert pressure from a lease or the C.E.O. of the company you are dealing with.
Ask them if they have a copy of a plan they have been using and review it with them. Once you have an understanding of what the emergency plan for the business should entail, schedule a meeting with one of your operations staff and if possible a representative from your local office of emergency management and discuss the existing plan and the facility as a whole. As a group, determine what modifications to the plan may be necessary and develop good feedback notes for the property representative. The more you do this, the less involvement will be required from others as you will become familiar with their preferences and thoughts.
Schedule another meeting with the property representative and go over the feedback you have on the plan. Give them a reasonable amount of time to make changes and to educate the occupants in the facility.
Offer to come and help provide assistance for training and implementation of the plan.
Once the training is completed, schedule a drill to exercise the plan. Invite your operations division to participate and invite the media if the property representative agrees. This type of media coverage will help bring awareness to the program, your department and be a huge advertising event for the property or business.
Evaluate the drill; get feedback on good and bad aspects of the plan from the staff or employees involved and from your crews. Boil these comments down, good and bad, and have the property representative re-adjust the plan one last time.
Give them a reasonable amount of time for them to conduct final training and establish a frequency that they can regularly do this.
Remember it is their plan and your role is to be a resource in the development of the plan.
Make sure they take ownership of the plan. This will help ensure buy in during the implementation phase of the plan.
In the end, you should have a business or property that is prepared for bad events, building occupants that understand how to respond and behave, and a working relationship between the facility and your emergency responders that will provide coordination and expectations on both sides when emergencies do strike.
This relationship not only makes your department look good but provides good examples of collaboration and value for the taxpayer. We often discuss building a fire prevention coalition; why not build an emergency preparedness coalition as well!
The same kind of outreach for emergency preparedness and evacuation planning should be provided to the residents of the community as well. As we know from our experience in disasters, we need to educate the community to learn to be self sufficient during the first 48 hours of incidents or even longer.
One of the best tools we can provide all of our residents is where to begin. We recommend citizens visit Ready.gov. This is a great resource for the business and residential community. Consideration should be given in developing a local guide to emergency preparedness specific to your community. The use of DVDs and flip charts is a great way to communicate emergency preparedness. The use of your local cable TV channel is also a great communication tool.
Remember to include emergency preparedness and evacuation planning in your fire and life safety education programs. This is a critical role that we as a fire service need to provide before the next major incident.
Brett Lacey is the Fire Marshal for the Colorado Springs, CO, Fire Department. He is a professional engineer and certified safety professional. Paul Valentine presently serves as Fire Marshal for the Mount Prospect, IL, Fire Department. Prior to the position of fire marshal, he was the fire protection engineer for the Mount Prospect Fire Department. Brett and Paul co-authored the text , Stillwater Oklahoma. The text can be purchased here.