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Evacuation and shelter planning

Evacuation and shelter planning

Many organisations continue to test their evacuation procedures and muster points on an annual basis but their plans fall short of what is now required to ensure the safety of their staff – and meet their corporate responsibilities.

Traditional evacuation plans developed to meet the threat of fire are no longer sufficient in work environments where there is a threat, however small, of a terrorist attack. Such a threat does not need to be directed at your organisation or building; it can be directed at another organisation nearby (up to half a kilometre or more) for it to put your staff and building at risk.
The increasing threat of terrorism means that many organisations now have to consider adopting new emergency response strategies. These include partial, phased and directed evacuation procedures and shelter in-place or invacuation (where occupants go to an internal place of shelter). Each of these require their own procedures and different drills and tests than a standard fire procedure or drill.

Directed evacuation means moving people to a place of lesser risk away from the location of a threat only via selected routes. For example, directed evacuation may be needed if there is a threat in the street outside the building’s main entrance, where staff would normally assemble during a standard fire alert or drill. This can mean that one or more of the usual emergency exits become unavailable. Therefore, staff need to be aware of the alternative routes to follow, as during a standard fire procedure or drill the instruction is usually to leave by the nearest available exit.

Human nature leads people to exit a building either via the route they entered or via the evacuation exit nearest their desk. In the case of a terror alert, neither of these may be suitable. People are either unaware of alternative exits or the exits selected by crisis management team are not communicated in a way that is easy to understand. This latter scenario happens in more complex buildings when the evacuation exits are not clearly distinguished and staff are either unaware of alternative exits or do not understand the instructions given. For example, an instruction to ‘leave via the northern exit’ may not be clear to people inside the building who do not have a sense of ‘north’.

The only way to ensure a directed evacuation will work in a real emergency is to communicate the procedure to staff and ensure it is thoroughly tested. Employees therefore need to be told why they may have to follow a directed evacuation and must be given adequate training in how to do this.

An alternative to evacuation may be to use a safe shelter area within the building. Some organisations now engage specialist consultants to complete a bomb blast analysis to identify which areas of their site can be considered as safe. However, many organisations fail to complete the job and establish adequate procedures for when and how staff should move to these areas. Many fail to carry out adequate drills for this scenario.

Many organisations limit their evacuation strategy to their own premises. However, once staff have evacuated the building a new range of problems may be encountered. Two or more muster points in different directions from the building may be needed. For example, there may have to be a muster point some distance from the building, and which is reached via side or rear exits. Routes to these assembly points should be as free from risk as possible. Organisations have a duty of care to their staff during an evacuation – whether as a drill or against a real threat.

In metropolitan areas one of the most significant challenges when evacuating a building is the uncontrolled dispersal of staff once a building has been evacuated. The introduction of hot desking, people leaving a building on smoke breaks or a member of staff ‘popping out’ for whatever reason without logging their whereabouts can all pose problems in the event of an emergency. All of these can lead to confusion over who is believed to be on the premises during the alert.

If conferences or meetings involving people from outside the site are held in your premises, you also need to ensure these people can evacuate to a place of safety.

If a real evacuation is needed, many organisations find it extremely difficult to account for their staff let alone account for members of the public or staff visiting from different locations.

When reviewing your evacuation strategy, you also need to consider whether the nature of the surroundings increases the risk of your building being evacuated. For example, the presence nearby of embassies, consulates and higher-risk businesses is likely to increase the chances of your building being evacuated under the direction of the emergency services.

Threats that would trigger an evacuation in your building may also trigger an evacuation in surrounding buildings. You should therefore talk to the owners of other buildings to understand their emergency procedures. You will need to find out their evacuation routes and assembly points in case they conflict with your own or if there is a likely to be a dangerous cross flow when staff are evacuated from both sites at the same time.

Large numbers of people evacuating simultaneously can also overload muster points or the street network, resulting in a dangerous crowd crush. If your building is located in an estate, you should contact the landlords to find out what provisions they have in place to enable a safe, effective wide area evacuation.

No emergency or evacuation plan has any value until it has been proven. The plans must therefore be tested to prove that they work.

Since evacuation drills can be disruptive to business and cost money, many organisations fail to test their evacuation plan. In others the same fire or evacuation drill is exercised every year and everyone gets out safely to the muster points. Little thought is given to how evacuation might work in a real emergency where conditions are not as benign as in a fire drill, and staff learn little from the exercise.

If there is the possibility of a terrorist threat, evacuation drills and tests need to be carried out regularly and they must be varied. During rehearsals, fire exits should be closed and some of the usual fire evacuation routes should be removed to familiarise people with the alternatives. Failing to test evacuation plans for terror alerts and to train people on them could cost lives. Many lives were saved during 9/11 by those companies that practised their drills beyond their statutory duty.

However, improving your evacuation procedures does not mean carrying out endless exercises. Analysis of the building layout and emergency procedures can identify robust strategies that work across many scenarios, and make emergency evacuation quicker, potentially saving lives. These procedures can also be tested in computer simulations before being drilled more efficient and effective.
Nor is it necessary to have a huge list of procedures so that every possible scenario has been considered and rehearsed by all personnel. Instead, those responsible for facilities management, crisis management or business continuity planning should consider a wide range of emergency scenarios. They should then devise a manageable number of emergency procedures that are both effective (for example, in terms of reducing evacuation time) and resilient.

The best evacuation strategy is one that is comprehensive and understood by all personnel, even those that have only been with the company for a short time. It must also consider the full range of potential threats at all locations.

Communication with staff and visitors in an emergency also needs to be clearly thought through and exercised regularly. There needs to be much better training, and thought should be given to real-time communication techniques such as using PA systems and signage. You may also need to consider communicating with staff and the outside world post-event. Where the number of visitors is high – as in a shopping centre, for example – then communication becomes even more important since training will not have been possible for everyone.

Last but not least, the strategy needs to be maintained, tested and updated to remain effective.

When you review your plans, can you confidently answer the following questions?
* Will my plans work if there is a terrorist attack?
* Will I be able to evacuate all my personnel if some of the emergency exits are unavailable?
* What will we do if the muster point is unavailable?
* Do I understand the building and business related risks in my surrounding area?
* Are my evacuation plans and routes risk free for my personnel?
* If we are evacuated, how do my personnel get home?
* How long can I expect the muster point to provide shelter for our personnel?
* Can I confirm that all personnel have been evacuated and accounted for?
* What if the police tell us to shelter inside the building?
* Are the safe shelter areas we provide really safe?
* How long can I expect my personnel to shelter here?

These are just a sample of the many additional questions that now need to be considered when developing a workable, effective evacuation plan.

I would recommend you download the Evacuation Guidance (4 Pages including Evacuation Flow Chart) - A must need document for all company's. - Document HERE
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