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.
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.