08 Jan 2013

Mass Evacuation Planning – How To Make Your Plan Robust And For All Seasons

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A comprehensive security plan for any facility includes emergency mass evacuation planning. Those responsible for security and management of a facility must identify, anticipate and plan for the unique factors within the facility and those who inhabit it. The plan should include both short term and long term evacuations, as well as sheltering in place, assisting those with special needs, injuries and alternatives in the event an evacuation route is compromised. Threats that involve more than an individual facility are best coordinated through a community effort of government officials, community resources such as organizations that serve specific needs in the community and individuals that have expertise in the particular type of emergency that presents itself.

Mass Evacuation Planning

Why It Is Critical

Most facilities have a basic evacuation plan in the event of fire that delineates exits, fire alarms, fire extinguishers and emergency contact information. These plans are fine for what they are designed for, the problem arises when evacuation routes are obstructed, injuries occur that delay evacuation or unanticipated hazards arise in the area to be evacuated. Developing an effective, comprehensive plan should include building layout, hazards unique to the facility, such as high rises or multiple buildings in a large facility, number and location of personnel.
Additionally, notification and warning equipment and procedures, facility utilities such as ventilation, elevators, fire protection systems and egress procedures, including those with special needs and potential injuries need to be understood and planned for especially in the event of a catastrophic failure of a given system.

One of the horrific tragedies in Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was the deaths of the elderly and other special needs patients in care facilities or in private homes abandoned, forgotten or lost due to failures in planning identifying, transporting and providing care during and after the evacuation. Since then, government agencies at all levels, as well as community service organizations have reviewed plans, learned from other emergency evacuation successes and failures and learned more about what practices are more effective across the spectrum of emergency events.

My Field Experience

In 1985, I worked as a Red Cross volunteer during Hurricanes Elena and Kate, then again during multiple hurricanes throughout my career as a deputy sheriff. In each of these events, emergency personnel provided early warnings to inform the public, advanced the warnings to encourage evacuation and in some cases issued mandatory evacuations. There was the inevitable scramble to gather food, batteries, water and other supplies. A significant number of residents chose to evacuate to other areas, staying with family or in hotels outside of the potential path of the hurricane.

Hurricane Elena presented particular challenges because of the looping path in the Gulf and uncertainty of the zone to be affected. In each of these events, there were people who didn’t take the warnings seriously, some who decided to remain with pets that weren’t allowed in shelters and those with medical issues either chronic or manifested themselves during the evacuation. Pregnant women, those with breathing or cardiac problems, the mentally ill and young children presented challenges to shelter facilities, especially those without medical personnel available. The most difficult aspect of dealing with evacuations and emergency shelters was after the immediate threat passed, for some in the shelter; this was often during the lull that occurs when the eye of the hurricane passes through. Even though there were threats due to flooding, damage to bridges, roadways and downed electrical lines, the desire to return to check their homes overwhelmed security concerns of emergency personnel. Although most in the shelter were helpful and supportive during the initial threat, the longer the evacuation and sheltering lasted, the more agitation and frustration arose.

When dealing with more localized events, such as gas leaks, broken water mains and chemical spills, locals were very cooperative in evacuations or other requests by emergency personnel. Leaving the area and other requests were promptly complied with once individuals were given information on the type of threat, the potential for the threat to directly affect them and the level of consequences that could occur as a result of the threat. Exaggeration, minimizing the threat, conflicting information or an overbearing tone significantly damaged public cooperation both during the event and in future events. One myth that abounds is that the public will panic during an emergency evacuation. In multiple catastrophic events, such as the 9/11 catastrophe, people responded calmly, helping others and remained so throughout the event. The notable exception is during a fire in an enclosed area without sufficient exits to get everyone out in time to avoid being overcome by smoke or the fire.

Key Points in Facility Mass Evacuation Planning

The first consideration is to be familiar with the building plan of the facility and its unique challenges to evacuation. High rises, multiple buildings on a large complex and changes to the facility after an initial plan must be reviewed and walked through to ensure plans are up to date and take into consideration special needs or unique threats. Being aware of compromises to structure, ventilation, and movement of contaminants through elevator shafts, hazards that occur when power failure occurs and other structural anomalies occurring from threats or changes in neighboring structures need to be included in planning. Planning for sheltering in place, partial evacuation and full evacuation of large facilities must be coordinated with facility security, emergency personnel and fire departments. Including detailed floor plans for emergency personnel is invaluable in coordinating an effective emergency response.

The next phase in planning is to know the number, concentration and potential special needs of personnel and possible visitors to be prepared to evacuate. Insufficient egress to accommodate the number of people evacuating a given area contributes to panic that is unnecessary and preventable in most instances. Those with special needs should be included in planning and preparing for evacuation, while respecting privacy concerns. Plopping an evacuation chair in a wheelchair bound person’s office without prior discussion or preparing for its use is a recipe for disaster, potentially causing humiliation, destruction of dignity and lack of cooperation, as well as further delays, with security personnel during an evacuation.

Initial threat notification and ongoing communications for security and non-security personnel must be clear, concise, consistent and coordinated to facilitate an orderly response for evacuation or shelter in place response. Preparing for potential communications disruptions as a result of power failure, damage to phone lines, interoffice announcement systems and death or injury to key personnel is an important component of evacuation planning. In recent natural disasters causing massive service outages, the texting capabilities of cell phones were sometimes functional even when voice capabilities were knocked down. Carefully managing communications to provide accurate, clear, jargon free information provides personnel with critical information to make decisions to assist in their own safety, as well as those around them, which in turn, frees emergency and security personnel to respond to where they are most needed. Providing sufficient information to assist in adapting and improvising in unanticipated events improves the ability to get as many people to safety as possible when security and emergency personnel are busy and potentially overwhelmed.

Additional measures to be taken include a system to account for all personnel, pre-planned assembly points, team assignments to monitor elevators, stairwells, doorways, and room and floor clearance. Plans should be updated, when new threats arise, changes in the facility to structure, number or location of personnel. Most importantly, administrators, security personnel and managers must “buy” into the security plan and provide for sufficient training and practice drills to ensure the effectiveness of the evacuation plan.

What do you see as the greatest challenge to an effective mass evacuation plan? If you’ve dealt with a mass evacuation event, did you find panic to be an issue or were other problems more significant? I welcome your thoughts and comments below.

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