Principles of Emergency Response Planning and Training

The Big Three.  At heart, all emergency plans deal primarily with the interaction of systems, people, and procedures:

  • Systems are the features and equipment that come into play in an emergency – fire detection and suppression equipment, stairwells and elevators, communications equipment, extinguishers, HVAC, etc.
  • People include trained staff, warden teams, occupants, visitors, and responding emergency personnel
  • Procedures are the response protocols to be followed in each emergency scenario

Like Politics, All Emergency Preparedness is Local. While emergency response procedures tend to be fairly standard, the specific conditions in your facility will shape your plan. The plan for a downtown, river-front high rise that houses FBI agents, financial trading companies, and a daycare center will be different from the plan for an isolated suburban low-rise.  Adapt the standard guidelines and response protocols to reflect the facts on the ground.

Know Your Building. Nearly every emergency scenario will involve some interaction with your building’s systems. Because you’ll likely have to think on your feet and improvise, know what you’ve got to work with. Will a PA announcement be heard inside the exit stairwells? Do any tenants have their own HVAC units or ventilation equipment that need to be shut down during a shelter in place? Truly understanding the limitations and capabilities of your building’s systems can make a big difference in how effectively your team responds.

Your building’s limitations and capabilities will affect how well the emergency response plan works. Concentrate on the capabilities and develop other options to overcome the limitations.

Don’t Go Overboard. Plans are essential first steps, and you’ll want to think carefully about the range of situations you might face. But while small emergencies can be handled by the book, significant disasters tend to deviate from your carefully constructed plan pretty quickly. Don’t get bogged down trying to document a detailed response to every single “what if” scenario.  Your best asset in a major emergency is a well-trained staff capable of making decisions amid rapidly changing circumstances.

Cross-Train Your Staff.  The resident emergency preparedness expert, the person everybody intends to rely upon in a crisis, will probably be on vacation when disaster strikes. If no engineer is on-site, will someone from security or property management be able to shut down the HVAC system?  Make sure your staff and emergency team members are cross-trained to carry out critical tasks.

When the Big One Comes, You’re on Your Own. When a bad event befalls your building, emergency personnel should be on-site within minutes to take over and lead the response. But in a regional event, you could be on your own for hours, maybe even days. The planning and training work you do now will make a profound difference in a large-scale emergency.

Train and Drill. Planning is the essential first step, but plans by themselves do not save lives – staff and occupants implementing a plan are what make the difference in an emergency. Good training programs are dynamic, engaging, and offer multiple ways to learn. Training materials are convenient, but people don’t remember much when the alarms are going off – they need to practice moving to their primary and secondary stairwells.

Focus on Responses, Not Threats. The number of possible calamities that could befall your building is large, but nearly all emergency responses boil down to a few common procedures -- evacuation, shelter in place, and internal relocation (at high-rise buildings). Focus on these responses, what you’ll need people to do. Spending too much time on the causes of disasters tends to unnerve people. Focusing on responses lets them know a plan is in place and trained staff will be ready to provide leadership.