Pop quiz: Can you identify your office’s nearest emergency exit?
For many of us, it’s easier to point out the vending machine. That’s OK; we’re human. We tend not to think about things we don’t routinely use.
But Debbie Royer does. As business administrator for Crossroads United Methodist Church in Washington, she can point to her facility’s exits in a flash. Ditto its storm shelter locations, emergency supplies and evacuation maps.
Moreover, she can point to the date when preparedness took on special urgency: July 13, 2004. That was the day a powerful tornado leveled Parsons Co. Miraculously, not one of the Roanoke company’s workers was hurt, thanks to Parsons’ foresight in building sturdy shelters.
Royer recalls: “After Parsons got hit, I went home and I thought, ‘What would we do if something happened at the church?’ ”
Convene and Consider
What if? It’s an uncomfortable but potentially life-saving question, and autumn is the perfect time to pose it, amid National Preparedness Month. Your local Red Cross urges central Illinois businesses and organizations to create or improve upon evacuation and shelter plans.
Start by forming a workplace planning team. If you already have a team, deepen your bench. Besides the usual players—plant supervisors, environmental safety officers—include representatives from human resources, accounting, labor, legal, communications, etc. They’ll appreciate the involvement, and their participation will make it easier to convey final plans throughout the organization.
Your team should weigh two initial questions:
- For whom are we responsible? Besides employees, think of who walks through your doors: clients, visitors, vendors. If the fire alarm rang, could they find the safest exit? If a chemical leak forced a temporary lockdown, could personnel prevent customers from panicking? Don’t forget to consider people with disabilities and those who do not speak English. This brainstorming is worthwhile. In Royer’s case, her team realized that many non-employees are at the church at any given time, ranging from young children to senior citizens.
- What are our risks? Consider which types of disasters are most likely to threaten your facility—internally and externally, natural and manmade. In the Midwest, we’re certainly familiar with severe storms and floods. What about transportation accidents or gas explosions?
Consult with utility companies, public works departments, emergency management officials and the American Red Cross for a better idea of the specific risks your facility may face.
Plan, Post and Practice
Plan. While different disasters merit different responses, businesses can plan for two baseline scenarios: Getting everybody outside (as in a fire), or getting everybody inside (as in a tornado).
In identifying evacuation routes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends that they be:
- Wide enough to accommodate the number of people who would use them. Look at your facility’s floor plan. Where would people instinctively go? How many people could pass through each exit? Is there potential for dangerous bottlenecks?
- Unobstructed at all times. A back exit or stairwell isn’t safe if it’s blocked by boxes or equipment.
- Clearly marked and well lit. Install emergency lighting in case an electrical outage happens during a disaster, such as a fire. Meanwhile, in choosing shelter spots, FEMA says these safe havens should be:
- Wide enough to give adults six feet of space.
- Below ground. Or, if your business has no basement, seek out a small interior room or hallway on the lowest floor, away from windows.
- Built with reinforced concrete, brick or block, with a concrete floor.
- Stocked with a few emergency essentials. Think water and a weather radio, flashlights and first aid kits.
“Do the very best you can with what you have,” Royer says, having helped form plans for Crossroads’ 55,000-square-foot facility. “Ask, ‘What can I do to give people the very best chance to make it through the storm?’ That’s how we approached it.”
Post. Once your team has determined suitable routes and shelters, mark them clearly and post maps in strategic locations. Don’t worry about going overboard. At Crossroads, maps are tucked into each room. And at your local Red Cross offices, these colorful sheets nearly outnumber the artwork on our walls.
Practice. Before practicing an evacuation or shelter plan, establish a clear chain of command and assign key duties among employees. Designate personnel to sound alarms, issue evacuation orders, help others and, most important, account for everyone in the building. Also, have your planning team hold a walk-through drill to troubleshoot areas they might have overlooked.
When plans are ready for prime time, hold drills regularly. Supervisors, especially, must approach these exercises seriously and communicate their importance to employees. After all, this is when folks will either absorb the information or tune it out.
Once everyone has shuffled to the parking lot or balled up along the hallway, seek immediate feedback. Was the alarm audible? Was it clear what kind of disaster situation this was? Could people find
Or could they more easily point to the vending machine?
Philosophically, this will help change your organization’s culture so that everyone—from new hires to senior managers—thinks about “what if?” routinely. More than ever, disaster planning is an integral part of the workplace. Managerial candidates can get a leg up if they have emergency planning experience.
“Most places probably think, ‘It’s never going to happen here,’ ” Royer says. But it might. That’s why the Red Cross emphasizes that disaster recovery begins before a disaster strikes. iBi
The Red Cross Central Illinois Chapter is pleased to provide local businesses and organizations with information about emergency planning, from damage mitigation to records protection to continuity of operations. Call (309) 677-7272 or visit redcrossillinois.org.