Does Everyone Know the Plan?

Recently I was asked by two campuses to review their fire evacuation plans for their campus buildings. In both cases, they had great plans in place for instructing people to pull the fire alarm and exit the building. When I asked facilities staff working in the building, they were not sure what they would do should they suspect a fire or other emergency in that building. Some said “call the fire department,” or their supervisor. Custodial staff were not sure how to activate the fire alarm or where to meet when the fire alarm went off. When asked if they knew what they should do should there be a campus-wide emergency, most joked and said, “Go home.”

What these hallway conversations made clear was the simple fact that many campus staff just don’t know what to do in an emergency. Localized to a single building, section of campus, or the entire campus, staff working in multiple locations did not know what they were expected to do. They had no idea what their individual roles and responsibilities were in the event of an emergency or disaster, or what protocols were to be followed during an event.

Have 72-Hour Kits
At the end of the review for both these locations, it became apparent that each facilities department needed to spend more time developing a clear emergency and disaster plan and setting aside adequate time to train all levels of staff within the facilities management group. Several milestones were set with priorities for each milestone. The first two priorities set for each organization were to review the overall campus plan in order to clearly understand where their department fit in, and second, to give individuals information for obtaining their own 72-hour emergency kits for home and campus.

There are many resources available in any community to help determine what should be included in home and work 72-hour kits. For the office, a 72-hour kit may look slightly different. The department may be able to supply food and water for individuals, and perhaps shelter. This lessens the burden of creating two personal kits. If the department can provide other portions of the kit, let employees know. In fact, it might be best to involve employees early on in the discussion about why 72-hour kits are important, and as a group decide what should be in them (and why the department can or can’t help put them together).

The office kit should contain copies of necessary prescriptions and a three-day supply of required medicine, a change of clothes appropriate for the work environment/season, personal comfort items (a book or activity to take their mind off work during downtime), contact information for family, and of course, personal hygiene items. In addition, an employee kit should have basic first aid supplies, thermal blanket, 12 200-calorie food bars, a flashlight with two sets of batteries, and a whistle. The office kits should be stored in a safe place. For those living in earthquake-prone regions, personal cars may be the best location rather than in an office.

Communicate the Role of Facilities Staff
The second priority for each of these campuses was to better understand how the facilities division fit in to the overall campus disaster plan. They are currently reviewing the purpose of the department plan and scope. Next month they will be reviewing direction and control as well as roles and responsibilities within their plan.

The purpose of their plan was to guide their personnel during an event, to help identify their roles and responsibilities, and help guide their decision making. It is better to agree in writing what each division's role is prior to an event. This allows for all departments to see what their responsibilities are and what other groups are accountable for.

Identifying Scope
The scope of the plan is written to provide guidance for individual divisions to operate until a more formal emergency operations center is activated. Identifying scope will keep departments focused on what they can and can’t do during the first few hours of a disaster. Depending on the level of an event, either localized to a single building or large-scale (where the entire community is impacted), defining scope will allow units to take action that is supportable and appropriate for the level of disaster. Scoping will help identify who can request outside resources and who can make decisions about suspending campus operations.

If your department has a plan, this is a reminder to dust it off and ask staff what they think their roles are. If they hesitate or simply don’t know, take the time to start a review. Start off small; break the review process down into small monthly tasks. There is no set time to review all the components, simply take one or two each month... and start.

About the Author

Mike Halligan is the President of Higher Education Safety, a consulting group specializing in fire prevention program audits, strategic planning, training and education programs and third party plan review and occupancy inspections. He retired after twenty six years as the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management at the University of Utah. He frequently speaks and is a recognized expert on residence hall/student housing fire safety and large scale special event planning. He also works with corporate clients to integrate products into the campus environment that promote safety and security.