In recent weeks, the global outbreak of COVID-19 has laid bare what many risk and safety experts have known for a long time: businesses are generally far less prepared for most emergency situations than they realize. That’s why we decided to take this moment to discuss what emergency preparedness looks like, what you need to do, and how you can be sure your protocols and policies work well.
Moving forward, we’ll walk through the Who’s, What’s, Where’s, When’s, and How’s of emergency preparedness to explore:
- Who needs to be involved in which aspects of your emergency preparation planning
- How to know what to plan for
- How to identify and address your organization’s unique challenges and strengths
- How to create relevant evacuation and post-emergency protocols
- How to foster an approach to emergency preparedness that’s strong and designed with growth and evolution in mind
Who Will Be Leaders & Points of Contact in an Emergency?
Your first logistical concern for an emergency preparedness plan is identifying which key team members will coordinate and own your emergency preparedness efforts. Safety and security directors are natural fits, as are top HR personnel who have a deep understanding of chain of command and organizational depth chart.
Once that team comes together, they in turn need to identify team- and department-based leaders who will aid them in spreading the word about emergency preparedness protocols and serve as organizational aids and points of contact during an emergency or drill.
Depending on the size and culture of your organization, it might make sense for those leaders to be departmental managers and supervisors, or it could be beneficial for your emergency team to represent professionals from various tiers and backgrounds within your team. It’s all about creating a leadership and command team that’s scaled to the way your team is organized.
What Might Happen?
The easiest emergency to prepare for is the one you see coming and take seriously. That means your emergency preparedness team needs to use research and brainstorming to identify scenarios that might impact your business and create a plan of action for each one.
It may sound like grim work, but it’s important to think realistically about what bad things might happen. Of course, the specific threats are going to vary based on your region, industry, and other factors, but it’s important to think of things like:
- Fires inside the office or building
- Nearby wildfires or fires in adjacent structures
- Natural disasters (earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes)
- Active shooters
- Active shooters on-premises
- Active shooters reported in the area
- Addressing credible threats from/concerns about potential shooters
- Building or structural failures
- Hazardous material exposures
- Employee medical emergencies (heart attacks, strokes, seizures, etc.)
Once you’ve created a list of anticipatable emergencies, you can begin to create comprehensive, powerful plans to address each scenario while also building a leadership and organizational framework you can apply during other unforeseen emergencies.
What Are Our Strengths?
As you begin to create your emergency plans and protocols, you need to think about which strengths you can leverage to help you in an emergency. For example:
- Do you have any employees with a first responder, military, or medical background? How can their knowledge and expertise improve your planning or response?
- Is there anything strategic or inherently safe about the location and design of your office or campus? Which places are especially safe in each of the above scenarios?
- Do you have a great team where people treat each other like a family? How can you put that positive community spirit to work during an emergency?
- What resources have you compiled that could be useful in an emergency situation? How can you get access to employee rosters and contact information quickly?
- How do you communicate most effectively? What communication protocols are most effective within your existing culture, and how can you extend that to an emergency situation?
What Are Our Weaknesses or Exposures?
Of course, it’s equally important (if not more) to consider your weaknesses when it comes to emergency preparedness. You need to think about what unique challenges you face because of the way you do business, how your surroundings create exposures or weaknesses, and what you can do to address those concerns.
Your weaknesses or exposures will be specific to your business, but it’s important to think about things like:
- Where are there gaps in the security of your building?
- Do your surroundings make you uniquely susceptible to damage from earthquakes, mudslides, forest fires, tornadoes, etc.?
- Where are hazardous materials stored, and what negative things could potentially happen there?
- What factors (either controllable or not) might hinder first responders in their efforts to provide support to your team in the case of an emergency?
- What problems might you run into during an
- Do we have a comprehensive way of knowing who’s supposed to be here?
- Is our communication framework reliant on electricity, cell service, etc.?
What Do Employees Need to Know?
So, you’ve got a core team of emergency preparedness leaders and an identified network of team- or department-based sub-leaders who understand your emergency protocols, preparedness plans, communication strategy, and overall approach to crisis management. But before you can actually express confidence in your preparedness, you need to figure out what information rank-and-file employees need to know in order for your plans to be effective and how you will communicate that information to them.
Where Will Employees Go During an in-Office Emergency?
Be sure to think about:
- How different evacuation routes/destinations might be preferable for different emergencies
- Where members of different departments will go if they are at their desks during an emergency
- How employees will connect with others if they’re away from their usual work area during an emergency
- How you’ll know who is where during and after an emergency
- How various conference rooms and communal spaces will be evacuated
- How structural emergencies (fires, inaccessible stairwells) could impact any of these concerns
Where Will Employees Go During an Office Shutdown?
If your office is closed during or after an emergency, it’s important to keep a beat on where your workforce is dispersing to. That means having a strategy to enable remote work and figuring out how you’ll address pay, child care, etc.
When Will We Practice?
No emergency plan – no matter how good it is – will ever succeed in a real use case if it isn’t backed by thoughtful preparation. That means emergency drills.
One of the biggest mistakes organizations make is drilling everybody at once, however. The best strategy is to have your emergency preparedness team and team leaders practice their administrative duties several times before and then have those small group leaders practice with their individual teams as well. That way, when the large-scale coordinated drill happens, nobody is experiencing the protocols or walking through their role in the plan for the first time.
It’s also key to think about how you will blend planned and unplanned drills. In all honesty, nobody loves unplanned drills, but they’re highly beneficial for your own plan development and your local first responders, who need to see how you and your employees will address emergencies so they can react accordingly. Finding a balance between lower-pressure walkthroughs and full-speed, all-hands drills is key to building a culture of preparedness.
When Will We Revisit This Plan?
This is one of the questions emergency planners most often forget to ask. Plans are created for the time in which they were designed and the foreseeable future thereafter. No safety or emergency plan, no matter how comprehensive or excellent it is, is designed to last forever.
That’s why it’s crucial to set a date or year upon which your core safety team will reevaluate and revisit your emergency plans and protocols. Of course, it may also become necessary to update your plans before then, as new predictable threats or hazards present themselves.
How Will We Educate Employees About Our Plan?
Those frequent drills will go a long way to get your employees comfortable with your emergency protocols, but there’s far more employee education that needs to happen. Drills must be backed up by full explanations of emergency protocols and directions for follow-up.
Additionally, it’s important to think about how you will make emergency preparedness plans and resources available to employees on a regular basis.
How Will We Assess the Strength of Our Plan?
Once your plan is fully actualized, you need to track your results with improvement in mind. That means paying close attention to your drills, listening to feedback from first responders and safety consultants, and keeping your ear to the ground for emergency preparedness best practices. The best plan is always a growing, evolving one.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the general lack of emergency preparedness across businesses. We must seize upon this moment to start planning for the next event and ensuring we have effective protocols in place to address foreseeable emergencies and create a framework to handle the unforeseeable.
- Safety preparedness must be owned by a core team, but pulling it off requires the engagement of team- or department-level leadership and ground level employees
- It’s crucial to anticipate and plan for as many different specific scenarios as possible
- Drills and practice (both at the individual team and whole-office levels) are essential to handling a true emergency effectively
- Your emergency plans must evolve over time to stay up to date with needs and best practices