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Making emergency response planning a priority

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Ask business owners what their top concerns are, and you'll hear about rising inflation, energy costs, downsizing and layoffs. Way down on the list you may find emergency response planning as concern. But it's been pushed down the list recently by the other issues.

Emergency response planning may not be at the forefront of your concerns, but it should be. If a fire breaks out at your business, you won't be concerned about rising inflation; you'll want to know what to do to keep your customers and staff safe.

Emergency response planning was born out of the need to make decisions immediately to minimize the potential for injuries or loss of life. Many businesses have learned difficult lessons during emergencies. While we generally think that emergency response personnel, such as fire and police, come and rescue us during an emergency, the real success for any emergency response is found within the first 10-20 minutes of a crisis. In most cases, this is the time you will spend waiting for local emergency units to arrive on scene and assess the situation before committing resources.

As we think about emergency response planning, we need to ask a couple of questions:

1. How do you define emergency response for your business?

2. Will your personnel need specialized training to manage the first few critical minutes?

First of all, you need to remember that you know your business better than anyone else. It is therefore essential to develop an internal emergency plan and train your employees to react to different emergency situations. Trained personnel from your business should be able to initiate an emergency response plan until advanced emergency teams arrive on scene.

What is it we are trying to accomplish with an emergency response plan? As a business you must think of the following simple steps during the initial stages of an emergency:

1. Communicate

2. Evacuate

3. Assemble personnel into a secure area

4. Accountability

5. Debriefing the emergency

When you take a look at each component of the emergency response plan, you will realize that emergency planning is based on a systematic approach of managing a crisis until emergency responders arrive on scene and take over the situation.

If we consider the whole picture of your business, from simple to complex, initial communication is the starting point of activating the emergency response plan. A system must be in place to notify key personnel about an event and what steps to take next. This initial notification system can be through a series of defined messages from an internal communications system or by other effective means without creating panic or what's known as an uncontrolled evacuation.

In an effort to establish an internal emergency response team, some companies have designated and trained employees to be facility emergency coordinators (FECs), selected and located in key locations throughout a facility commonly called emergency zones. Facility emergency coordinators are provided with basic training to understand their roles and are accountable for a certain number of employees in assigned locations. They should have available to them different types of emergency items that will distinguish them from everyone else, such as a hard-hat, vest, flashlight, whistle, clipboard and a roster of employees from their assigned area.

Once the initial signal is given, FECs will make sure employees are notified to evacuate and move to a designated assembly area for accountability. This is the most important part of an emergency plan for a business. The FEC should be able to communicate with employees in their assigned work areas by using a whistle, bullhorn or an internal public address system to pass along an initial message. The initial message is critical when telling employees that this "is or is not a drill" and to move safely and methodically to their designated assembly areas.

If there is an actual emergency, other key personnel in the business must be trained on how to respond to the emergency and react accordingly. During the planning process it is important to consider different emergencies and evaluate the company's computer information system and any upgrades or redundancies needed to protect critical business data during a fire, earthquake or some other emergency to prevent a loss of valuable resources. There must be a plan to isolate and shut down all unnecessary machinery and equipment during the initial communication phase. Once the evacuation has taken place, someone in the assembly area (incident commander) should be addressing the status of an operational shutdown.

The next phase of the emergency response plan for consideration is a facility evacuation plan. An evacuation plan must be developed with designated evacuation points throughout a building and posted in common corridors during emergencies. Organizationally, someone must assume responsibility of the whole event during the evacuation. This person is a senior position in the company and known as the incident commander who will address advanced emergency response teams once they have arrived on scene. The assigned incident commander will take charge of the incident and start asking a series of questions. The first and most important question that should be asked of key company personnel is to provide a status update of the emergency at hand and any steps being taken to mitigate operational concerns. What is the problem? Has everyone evacuated safely? Is anyone hurt or in need of medical attention? These are just a couple of questions that need to be answered before emergency responders arrive on scene, so that their initial assessments of the situation can be accomplished quickly as they begin committing their own resources.

The next part of the emergency response plan that should be addressed, once all personnel have evacuated the building and are accounted for, is to determine if evacuated personnel should move further away from the scene, or if the current location is secure until the event is over. If this is going to be a long and involved emergency, which possibly involves a rescue of personnel or there is a violent person in the area, the incident commander will determine if a layered evacuation zone needs to be established for the safety of everyone present.

It is at this point of the planning process when senior business managers develop a much better understanding of the complexity of an emergency and the expected duration of the incident. You should be able to determine if you need to consider closing your business and allow personnel to go home until further notice. Accountability of personnel may need to take place a few different times during the movement of designated assembly areas.

Once the emergency is considered over and the "all clear" is sounded, usually by emergency responders, then it is up to the incident commander to conduct a debriefing with all key personnel from fire and police. The debrief should memorialize what worked well and what needs to be improved upon if this same type of emergency ever happens again. Business managers should hold a separate meeting as soon as possible with key personnel to review the company's emergency response plan and make revisions as needed.

Once you have a functional emergency response plan in place, training is the key to its continued success, and conducting annual drills will help to support the outcomes of real emergencies.

Take the time today to develop a plan to ensure the safety of your customers and employees. If your business is ever threatened by an emergency, your reaction time in the first few minutes may save lives.

McAlister is the director of the Risk & Loss Division at Barney & Barney LLC, a California-based company that provides a wide range of insurance and risk-management solutions.

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