Tag Archive for emergency response

The Evacuation Process

I review many Emergency Response Plans that include evacuation congregation points for employees to gather and be accounted for.  I know that this is a common practice that has been around for many years and incorporated in many, many programs … I am just not sure if this really works, or even if it is a good idea.

First of all, most congregation points are designated near the evacuated building and are department specific based on the location of the department within the building.  For example, if the Accounting department is located in the southeast corner of the building, the congregation point for the Accounting personnel is in the southeast corner of the parking lot.  This solution assumes that all employees are at their desks when the alarms sound – not a likely occurrence.  You do not want Accounting personnel, who might have been in a meeting in the northwest wing of the building walking around the parameter of the building trying to get to their designated congregation point.  The last thing the first responders want is to have people walking around the building trying to get to their gathering spots.  People should exit the building out of the closest and safest egress point and continue to walk away from the building until they are in a safe zone.  You can be accounted for later – most immediately, get to safety.

Furthermore, if it were a real situation, in the chaos, confusion and stress of the situation, the employee is not likely to remember or care where the congregation point for their department is.  Add in an inclement weather component to the event … and, well, I think you see where I am headed.

I have even seen this strategy documented in city locations for companies that have offices in high rise buildings with many other occupants.  The congregation points are often too close to the building the plan is written for and are not coordinated with the other tenants of the building.  The chaos, confusion and intermingling of people from a multitude of companies, not to mention other members of the public stopping to watch the situation, will prove this strategy to be impractical, at best.

Working with a number of companies that have experienced large scale evacuation situations, including those I worked with after the tragic events of 9/11, I am seeing more and more programs that include a “reconnect process” to account for their employees.  The premise of the reconnect process is to tell employees, at time of an evacuation, to follow the instructions of the floor wardens and responding authorities, get to a place where you feel safe and secured and then call into a central number – on a phone system supported in another region – and account for yourself.

This will not necessarily be a quick and timely accounting of your employees, but an accurate head count at time of event is virtually impossible to achieve.  Besides, first responders are looking for orders of magnitude, not exact counts.  First responders’ immediate job is search and rescue – any information helping them identify where to first focus their efforts will be valuable, or any information detailing an approximate number of people that could still be in the building.  An exact accounting of who got out will not be available and trying to achieve this through congregation points that may be in the way of the first responders, compromised by the footprint of the disaster, or “contaminated” by other people, is not, in my opinion, a viable solution.

These types of practices look good on paper and can often be made to appear feasible and practical during controlled drills and practices, but, and I think history will support me on this, are not always the best, or even achievable, solutions at time of a significant event.

Think about how your organization might implement a reconnect process to help account for your employees.  After the tragic events of 9/11, many employees, having finally reached their homes, waited for days before someone from their company finally found them.  If they had been taught and instructed to account for themselves, this process may have been accomplished quicker.

Also, think about using a “virtual meeting place” for management teams to gather as we suggested in this other blog article.

I hope you never have to try your evacuation process and procedures for real, but if you do, you want to ensure you have implemented the safest and most practical plans you can.

Virtual Emergency Meeting Locations

I have been working with a few companies lately in reviewing their business continuity plans and strategies for individual business units.  Many of these plans include listing an off-site meeting location or department command center for managers to gather following a building evacuation and prior to opening an alternate site facility.  In many cases, this location is the head manager’s home or a local coffee shop or other public gathering place.

Whereas, I like the concept of gathering the managers for information sharing and decision making purposes, I like even more the use of a “virtual meeting place” through the use of conference, bridge calls.

I have been recommending that these individual departments utilize their existing conference bridge capabilities to initially get the decision makers together to assess the impacts on their employees and discuss their options for responding to and recovering from the incident.  Furthermore, I have suggested that, when a situation occurs where they are alerted of an incident preventing access to the primary facility, they establish a default meeting time via the conference bridge.  For example, the department plan could be, “Once alerted of a situation in one of our facilities housing department personnel or business functions, until such time as you are contacted otherwise, call into the bridge conference number every hour on the hour.”  I think this is a good default plan should other communication techniques or alerts not be viable at the time.  You call into the conference bridge on the top of every hour and see who else may be on the call and do the best you can to manage the situation.  Once other arrangements or schedules are made for this particular event, then you adjust from there.

This suggested strategy has been well received from all the management teams I have talked to and most of them have implemented this strategy in their plans.

Just thought I would share some free advice here in my blog.  If you like the suggestion and are thinking about using it or you have a better idea, I welcome you to share your comments.  Thanks.

Seattle Area Snow and Ice Storms

All of last year, we in the Seattle and Puget Sound area, sat comfortably by watching the rest of the United States, and rest of the world, suffer through one weather and geological disaster after another.  Well, 2012 is letting us know early that we will not have that same luxury this year.

So far, I am one of the lucky ones who still has power in my office and home as the number of outages keeps increasing from falling tree branches and power lines.  As I sit here typing, however, the lights are flickering and the trees outside my window are looking ominous.

Yesterday, this area was hit with one of the worst snowfalls in recent history and today that snow is being covered with a coating of ice and freezing rain adding to the already serious travel conditions.  The Sea-Tac airport has been closed all morning and, like I said above, power outages are steadily increasing.

Tomorrow, no doubt, as the temperatures continue to rise, will bring floods warnings to the area.

Weather emergencies seem to have their way of eventually getting to all regions of the world.  I doubt there are too many locations where you are safe from all tricks that Mother Nature has up her sleeve.  Undoubtedly, your time will come when you need to respond to or wait out a weather related event.

Last year, that was true for almost all areas of the United States except the West Coast and Pacific Northwest.  It’s only January 19 and the Pacific Northwest is already experiencing its first significant weather emergency in 2012.  I am sure we will be reading stories of business challenges and losses following this event in the coming days.  Airlines and airport services are already taking a huge hit over these past two days, not to mention those individuals relying on these services to get to their job locations.

Are you and your company prepared for what might be in store in 2012 for your part of the world?  I am sure, time will tell – we just don’t know when or what will measure that.

World Vision: Humanitarian Services and Emergency Response

Last week, I had the opportunity and privilege to have lunch with the gentleman responsible for business continuity planning at World Vision, United States.  Not only did I have the honor of meeting a real nice, intelligent and engaging individual, who I hope to be able to share a number of lunches with in the near future – but, I also got an interesting education on the World Vision organization; an organization of which I knew little about.

Taken from their website, (http://www.worldvision.org/content.nsf/about/who-we-are?Open&lpos=bot_txt_Who-We-Are), “World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice.”

At my guest’s recommendation, I arrived for our appointment a half an hour early to allow me time to tour the World Vision museum at their World Headquarters prior to our lunch.  This was a fascinating self-guided tour through the history, mission, successes and future hopes of the World Vision organization. 

And, not only does World Vision help tackle the causes of poverty and injustice, they are also one of the first organizations on site, and the last to leave, providing emergency support and care in the wake of natural and man-made disasters.

World Vision may not be as known or recognizable here in the US as the American Red Cross is, but they provide many similar services and are very well known in other regions of the world.

While walking through the museum, I was, of course, particularly drawn to the displays and information available describing their disaster and emergency response efforts.  There was one plaque on the wall that included this quote:  “The World Bank has estimated that every dollar spent in preparing for a natural disaster saves seven in response.”  I find that a remarkable statistic supporting our cries for the need to prepare in advance for disasters and business interruptions.  I wonder if similar results are realized in business continuity situations.  It seems to me that they would be.

Anyway, I just thought that I would draw your attention to this lesser known organization that provides tremendous humanitarian services throughout the world and is also very involved in disaster and emergency response, care and relief – especially focused on the needs of children and those without the means to provide care for their selves.  I highly encourage you to visit their website and learn more about World Vision for yourself.

FEMA and Joint Agencies’ Emergency Alert System Test

For those of who are not aware, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), will be conducting a joint nationwide Emergency Alert System test on November 9, 2011 at 2:00 p.m. Eastern / 1:00 p.m. Central / 12:00 noon Mountain / 11:00 a.m. Pacific time.  For more information on this exercise you can click here to go to the FEMA website.

This will be the first nationwide test of this kind and, I think, a good idea to ensure a consistent delivery of notification for a national emergency.  There is some concern that a test of this nature and magnitude could cause some unnecessary concern from those who may not be aware it is only a test, so, do your part in making others aware of this event.

You might also want to monitor the test yourself and witness how this message is broadcast via multiple medium.  Turn on your radios and televisions and maybe even tune in to several stations or channels (use your teams if you have to) and see if there are any differences or flaws in the process.  Might be an interesting little exercise for ourselves.  And, wouldn’t it be neat to see how our security or crisis management teams would respond to a message like this if it were real?

It is probably too late to coordinate an internal exercise around this event, but it might be a good idea to just send around notice of this test to key response areas and ask them what their process would be if a national emergency was announced through the public media channels.  Their answers might be interesting, if not surprising.

So, be on your toes and remember, this is a test, this is just a test.

EDIT:  A reader provided me with this update information: Nov. 9 Nationwide EAS Test Shortened to 30 Seconds

The North East Snow Storm – 2011

Certainly, snow storms on the North Atlantic Coast are no surprise … but, in October!?!?  I mean, really?  We haven’t even turned the clocks back yet!  Even before the kids go trick or treating?  Madness, absolute madness.

And, of course, snow storms while trees still have leaves on them brings down more branches.  More branches falling take out more power lines.  More power lines out results in more businesses being interrupted.  Snow!  Before the end of October?  Absurd.

I guess it just goes to show, you need to always be prepared.  I am sure most cities had not yet received their supplies of salt/sand or other snow-treating chemicals yet.  Trucks, snow plows and snow blades probably had not been maintenanced or put into service yet.  And, other “winterizing” activities had not yet occurred.  Snow!

People love to talk about how bad the weather is in the Pacific Northwest.  Yes, we may have a lot of rainy and overcast days, but what we didn’t have this year are: floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, draughts or snow storms in October!

It has been a crazy weather year for much of the United States this past year and forecasts suggest much of the same this year.  I can’t wait – (that is in sarcasm font).

Testing Your Automated Emergency Notification Systems

Do those of you who rely on automated notification systems test the process regularly?  I know quite a few organizations that have invested in these software products and/or internet based services but yet never test them.  I think that presents a huge risk if and when you need to implement the service.  There are a number of issues with these products that you should make sure you have vetted besides validating that the phone numbers entered are correct.

One thing you should find out is what displays on a phone’s caller identification when the service is activated.  Some products allow you to customize the display while others may display an 800 number or the name of the service provider.  Many of your employees may see the caller ID displayed, not recognize it and ignore the phone call.  This can result in a very low percentage answer rate at time of crisis.

Also, if your service provides a computer generated voice message from typed text, you will want to make sure you are comfortable with how numbers and company jargon is interpreted by the voice module.  I have used several systems where you needed to be creative with the use of spaces, periods or commas to ensure the proper flow of the message.  Phone numbers entered as we normally type them were read too fast or specific company jargon was mispronounced and needed to be phonetically typed for the voice module.  People typing in the messages have to be trained to enter the message so it is read properly by the computer voice system.  One example where this became an issue was with an airline company where the employees regularly typed in airport codes in messages.  The message, “Problem on Flt 999 from EWR to LAX”, did not come across well when sent out as a voice message.

You may also need to make sure people are trained in the response method to indicate they got the message and, in some cases, to indicate their response posture.  And, be sure that there is no confusion with how to respond if the message is being picked up as a voice mail message.  I worked with one company where the message gave instructions to “Press 1 to listen to the rest of the message” or “Press X to indicate if you can respond”, etc.  This worked great if you received the message live, but pressing numbers while listening to the message in voice mail had no effect.  Employees were confused as heck while trying to follow these instructions in voice mail.  The messages had to be altered to indicate, up front, that if you are listening to the message in voice mail you will not be able to respond directly.

You may also need to test the system to see if there are any problems caused by the call volume.  I have seen, on more than one occassion, where business phone numbers were the primary number called and by issuing an alert, the company PBX was so innundated with incoming calls that it brought the system down.  This, needless to say, was a big problem.

One thing people should know and your management teams should be made aware of is that even for systems that are perfectly implemented and regularly tested, an 80% hit rate on weekends and after hours is still a very good response.  You should test your systems and track the success rate to get a realistic sense of what kind of response you can expect during a real emergency.

I understand there may be a cost incurred by phone call and doing too many tests can become expensive.  I also am cognizant of the delicate balance between making sure people know how to send a message and how to respond to the message with creating a “cry wolf” syndrome where too many tests result in people not being responsive to the phone calls.  It is up to us to make sure we come up with the proper schedule and frequency of these tests to ensure the use of this tool is effective and efficient at time of need.

Earthquake in Turkey

Earthquakes in foreign countries and underdeveloped, remote regions certainly have less business continuity impact and garner less of our attention, but the destruction, devastation and loss of life is no less tragic and no less heartbreaking.  Our thoughts and best wishes go out to the people of Turkey and the surrounding areas impacted by the devastating earthquake experienced there over this week-end.

The, now reported, 7.2 magnitude earthquake that hit near the cities of Ercis and Van in eastern Turkey over the weekend has resulted in enormous damage to the two cities and numerous villages in the area.  Rescue efforts are still underway as both death tolls and stories of survival continue to rise.  There have been, and no doubt will continue to be, a number of large after-shocks that will add to the terror and losses.

We, at Safe Harbor Consulting, will continue to follow the news stories and hope for more accounts of rescues and survival.  If there are stories of lessons learned from this event that might be applicable to other regions of the world, we will attempt to pass those along as well.  For now, we just hope and pray for the best.  We invite you do to do as well.

Emergency Response – Language Assistance

I am happy to report that our blog post inviting other companies to include a link to their websites on our blog page has resulted in a number of phone calls and emails.  Glad to see you all found us and are interested in being included on our page.

One company that contacted us, LangCommLive, eloquently pleaded their case for how an online, language interpretation company can have a role to play in Emergency Response programs.  They did not need to convince me.  Having recently been responsible for an airline’s emergency response program which includes having to provide passionate care and assistance to passenger families, some of whom may be foreign nationals, having to have access to professional language interpreters was something we were very cognizant about.  This was even a very important requirement for domestic flights that did not fly over foreign airspace – you never know what the demographics of your passengers, or their families, might be.

For any company that provides transportation services and must adhere to the Family Assistance Act of 1996, having access to this type of service is crucial.  The LangCommLive website includes a Case Study on how they were able to assist Carnival Cruise Lines during an emergency they recently experienced.

There are many other situations where language interpretation services may be necessary at time of crisis.  Including a firm like LangCommLive in your directory of service providers may prove valuable to you at time of your emergency – especially if you are an international firm.

We are happy to include a link to LangCommLive on our blog page and encourage our readers to consider how and where a service like this might be necessary in their emergency response and/or business continuity programs.

Thank You / Gracias / Merci / Danke / Arigato / Xie xie / Spasibo / Salamat / Tack / Dank / Diolch / Cam on / Dyakooyu / Khawp khun / Hvala / Fa afetai / Dannaba / Obrigado / Dziekuje / Tashakkur / Achiu / Grazie

Disaster Response – Enforcing Time Limits

Do you have a policy in your business continuity, disaster recovery, emergency response and/or crisis management program that establishes a limit on the number of hours responders can work before requiring a mandatory break?  Are you in position to enforce this policy?  Do you enforce it during recovery tests?

I know that during time of crisis people rise to the occasion and can sometimes exhibit superman (or woman) like powers and appear to go strong for many, many hours – but the fact of the matter is, the longer they are active, the less effective they are likely to be and the more errors or poor decisions they are prone to make.

I strongly suggest that your programs – all of them, technology recovery teams as well – have a stipulated policy that no one individual can work for more than 12 straight hours without taking a break.  And, I highly recommend that you have individuals on your team responsible for ensuring that this policy is followed. 

I think a 12 hour on, 12 hour off schedule should work fine, requiring only two subject matter experts for each role in the program.  I would prefer three 8 hour shifts – this can still be accomplished with just two individuals – but 12 on / 12 off makes it easier to ensure your primary team member is on during the most important 12 hours of the day or night.

I know it can be difficult making the second shift team members stay away from the response during the 1st twelve hours following the disaster, but you need to let them know how important it is that they show up 12 hours into the crisis, rested, refreshed and ready to operate. 

I also recognize that the 12/12 shift does require some turnover time from one shift to the next, but we need to make sure that that turnover does not draw out too long.  It will be tough to get the first shift team members to remove themselves from all the activity after 12 hours, but it is for the benefit of the individual and for the benefit of the organization that they should be required to remove themselves from the event and get some rest.  I think it is also important to have them physically removed from the crisis, as much as the situation allows, and put up in a location where they can rest undisturbed and away from all the activity.

I know this is not easy.  It is not easy for me to follow my own rule.  But it really is for the benefit of all that this policy be established and enforced.  I remember the old days, during mainframe recovery tests, where teams of us would go almost 48 hours non-stop in the recovery process.  And, still today, there are technology, network, database and other recovery teams that have few, or even a single, subject matter expert that will work on an issue until it is resolved no matter how long it takes.  I think it is up to us, as planning professionals to identify these employee-related, single points of failure in our solutions, communicate the problem to management and seek options for remedying this exposure.

If you have technology recovery tests scheduled for more than 12 hours – you need to let it be known that no one individual will be allowed to participate in the test exercise for more than 12 hours – and, you need to make sure that that rule is enforced.

There are actually companies that provide employee health and well being services who can help you enforce this rule and help provide mental health counseling for employees impacted by and/or participating in crisis situations.  You may want to check them out for advice on how to implement this particular component of your program.

This blog was written in less than 12 hours – just so you know.