Facilities teams rarely have the opportunity to test emergency response capabilities with full scale incident simulations. After all, most HR managers would object to crashing a chemical tanker in the parking lot, setting a few offices on fire, or inviting a disgruntled gunman into the workplace. So beyond emergency response documentation and the annual fire drill, organizations may use table top exercises to rehearse responses to potential situations.
In this type of drill, a facilitator (in a conference room) describes a detailed emergency scenario. Each department head then talks through his or her team’s actions and outlines the coordination/assistance that might be required from other departments, local authorities, or even suppliers.
The facilitator continues developing the scenario minute by minute and hour by hour as responses are offered (and often modified). Sometimes the facilitator throws the group a curve ball, adding an unexpected twist.
So the facilitator might insert a second emergency in the midst of the first. For example, an employee might have a heart attack during a building evacuation, or an employee with special medical needs may suddenly require unexpected assistance. This type of drill can be excellent for developing advanced response plans that include flexibility for the unexpected.
It’s impossible to contemplate every scenario that a facilities team could face. From a cappuccino collision with a primary e-mail server to martial law or global nuclear war, some things just can’t be covered by even the best planning strategies.
So when a phone switch goes down or a plumbing main ruptures, there’s no time to sift through a 4″ thick business continuity manual. Planning, documentation, and drills are all important steps in building a foundation of collective knowledge and instilling reaction instincts for an organization.
Recently, I was reminded of this by a former employee. We both have new employers now, but when we worked together many years ago, she served as a critical member of my team’s “red hat brigade.”
During fire drills or other facilities emergencies, members of this group grabbed their red baseball hats (hence the name), megaphones, and two-way radios and immediately proceeded to their assigned posts. They were responsible for making sure everyone exited the building quickly and in an orderly manner. At each facility exit, the brigade directed people to pre-assigned and labeled gathering spots in the main parking lot.
The red hats were instantly recognized as part of the facilities team, and special problems could be reported to them in an emergency. Our facilities team rehearsed the evacuation drill frequently (without actual alarms) and mastered radio protocol for checking in and making sure everyone was quickly at their posts. Sometimes I warned them of a pending drill, but more often it was a total surprise. Fortunately, the drills had a lasting effect.
This former red hat told me about a bomb threat that had been phoned in to her new office (a public institution that shall remain nameless). She said the administrative assistant taking the call apparently had no training or completely forgot it. After receiving the call, the person panicked, dropped the phone, and ran screaming out of the building! As bomb threat rumors spread and everyone began evacuating the facility, my former employee (not in a facilities role for over two years) immediately looked for her red hat and radio, but then realized she no longer had that responsibility. We talked about how interesting it was that, after such a long time, her reaction to the situation was still automatic.
Last week, I had my own live fire drill when power outages took down three of our office buildings. Security and maintenance were immediately dispatched to each location while the local utility was contacted for service. Only one of the three buildings was equipped with a generator (to back up a data center), emergency lighting, and life safety systems.
We advised the occupants of the other two buildings that if power wasn’t restored before the emergency lighting and fire panel batteries were exhausted (in about 45 minutes), they would need to leave. We also delivered flashlights in case security officers needed to guide procrastinating evacuees down dark stairwells. Maintenance technicians remained on standby to bring HVAC and access control systems back up when power was restored.
The second time, we only lost one leg of the three phase power, causing a brown out (as opposed to a black out, when all three phases fail). This is a particularly undesirable condition, especially for motors and other three phase equipment that can be damaged or destroyed during a phase loss.
I worked with our chief engineer to monitor radio traffic and phone calls to the office. The description of symptoms helped us recognize the phase loss condition. Within a few minutes, we gave instructions to shut down each building manually at the main switch gear. Quick diagnosis and response probably prevented thousands of dollars in equipment damage and avoided major HVAC downtime once power was restored.
These incidents illustrate the unpredictable nature of emergency response. I’m sure the public institution where my former employee works has a plan for a bomb threat, but I doubt the plan anticipated that the person taking the call would abandon her responsibilities.
Similarly, my team has procedures in place for responding to power outages. But last week, it was a great deal more challenging, since two of our nine maintenance men were out on medical leave, and a third was enjoying his honeymoon!
Moral of the story? Plan for what’s likely, and expect the unexpected. Knowledge, speed, and flexibility are valuable tools for emergency response.
Crane is a mechanical engineer and regional property manager with Childress Klein Properties, a leading real estate developer and property management services provider in the Southeast