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Business Continuity Focus: What happens when it's not a drill?

By Matt Donahue | Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

What happens when it’s not a drill? What will employees in the office do after hearing an announcement or alarm due to an incident? Quickly make their way to the stairs or ignore it and continue working?

In critical situations, time matters. If everyone delays evacuating to make sure it’s the “real thing” or just completely ignores the warning, they can potentially put themselves in serious jeopardy. At home or at work, fire alarms go off from time to time. Unfortunately, responses to such alarms can range from grabbing a fire extinguisher to fuse the situation to putting on ear plugs and continuing with your workday. Inadequate responses to a fire alarm, for example, can put yourself, coworkers, and even first responders at risk. Fines can also be assessed to a firm by agencies such as OSHA or the local fire municipality if employees fail to evacuate in a timely manner.

A recent report from the National Fire and Protection Agency (NFPA) estimated that in 2013 alone there were 487,500 structure fires, causing 2,855 civilian deaths and 14,075 injuries. Below are four areas of importance that firms should focus on during these types of scenarios to ensure their employees and businesses are not negatively impacted.

1. Know the plan.Evacuation Plan

OSHA requires that any workplace with 11 or more employees have a written Emergency Action Plan (EAP) provided by employers. Training on the EAP should be held for all employees at least annually. However new employee’s orientation training on the emergency plans need to be completed early on in the employee onboarding process. Also, if there are any updates to the plan or specific roles affected, employees must receive education and/or training as required by OSHA’s 29 CFR 1910.38. Employee knowledge and understanding of the plan and procedures improves preparation, response, and ultimately recovery from a fire or evacuation scenario  Also to note: firms could be held accountable if a visitor or contractor is injured or dies and it’s determined that; 1) they were not properly instructed on the EAP or FPP; or 2) no one was assigned to lead them to safety.

Not all EAP’s are the same, and they shouldn’t be. Certain factors can have an impact on the procedures – this might include number of employees, office location, and assembly area – and these can all shape or reshape a plan. EAP’s shouldn’t be made in a silo; they should be communicated to other authorities involved during an emergency including, but not limited to: building management, local fire departments, and other firms or companies occupying workspace. This will help keep everyone aware of each other’s procedures and help to identify avoid any potential incidents in the future.

2. Establish roles.

In addition to detailing evacuation procedures, an EAP should also identify various roles and their responsibilities. Some of the roles employees could be assigned to include:

  • Wardens: will determine accountability and communicate to responders. Keeping updated records/checklists of the office’s on-sight employees can be helpful for wardens.  After an evacuation, wardens will complete roll call for accountability at the evacuation site. If employees are not present at roll call and unreachable, they should be considered missing. Any missing employees should be communicated to building management, first responders and internally, if needed, to Human Resources.

  • Searchers: will be in charge of ensuring everyone has evacuated the workspace by checking work spaces, break rooms, bathrooms, etc. There should be a male and female assigned to this role. Searchers can also be assigned to ensure any visitors or contractors exit safely.

  • Mobility Assistance workers: assigned to employees with mobility issues or to assist people having difficulty exiting the building.

  • Evacuee: everyone not assigned with a role above is an evacuee. Their only job is to safely and calmly evacuate the building and go to the pre-established primary or secondary evacuation site(s). Once there, they should confirm they are accounted for by the warden either by the roll call or direct communication.

Accountability for employees during evacuations is paramount and failure to account for employees not only could risks the lives of responding police and fire departments, it also violates OSHA’s 29 CFR 1910.38, which means firms could be subject to fines. By ensuring staff understand their roles, it can improve companywide organization and reduce confusion during an emergency situation.

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

Communication with building management and/or local fire departments should take place long before any actual event or drill. Your firm’s EAP should be reviewed and discussed with the pre-mentioned authorities to determine if any actions or items within the procedures should be altered or changed to improve safety of the evacuees as well as the responding safety professionals.

Also discussed should be how communication will take place during a fire or evacuation. For instance, would either party prefer the exchange in person, via a certain phone number, email, and/or emergency radio? Once discussed and accepted by all parties, the information needs to be disseminated to employees and anyone working onsite (vendors or consultants). 

Communication internally with employees is also very important during a fire or evacuation scenario. Having a communication plan that outlines how the firm will disseminate information to employees in real-time will reduce confusion and frustration. It will also allow firms the opportunity to more effectively communicate business recovery strategies.

4. Practice and Participate.

Failure to practice and participate in fire and evacuation drills could not only lead to inattentive responses and confusion, it can potentially lead to injury and death. Like any endeavor just glossing over the process/instructions does not ensure everything will run smoothly without error. Conducting regular drills can provide valuable information and allow for feedback from employees or other participating groups, both of which can have an impact on the plan.

Some different types of drills to consider are:

  • Walkthrough drill: when individuals walk through an evacuation route and go to either the primary or secondary site. 

  • Scheduled drill: when all employees participate and the time and or dates are known by staff.

  • Unscheduled drill: when all employees participate and the time and date isn’t known.

Additionally, ensuring you firm’s emergency plans comply with necessary regulations will not only avoid fines from safety agencies, it will improve the safety of employees.  It can also boost morale and improve teamwork because everyone’s safety is considered, and employees can directly contribute to a safer workplace for all.

Additional Resources on Business Continuity Planning:

Photo Credit: Pixabay

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