Charlie Dismore, Charlie Dismore, Trainer/Consultant

Handling Disasters in the Workplace

"Handling Disasters in the Workplace –

What Property Owners and Managers Can Do"

By Charlie Dismore, CCIM, CFM, CPM, FMA, RPA

I know what you're thinking. You're looking at the first few words of this article wondering whether it will be worthwhile to read. Here's the "hook." Is it worth five minutes of your time to consider some points that could save your business records and maybe a life or two?

Remember some of the old disaster movies, like Towering Inferno, Earthquake or even the more recent Die Hard and all the sequels? If so, you'll no doubt recall that the film characters' ordinary lives were changed in an instant, due to the occurrence of an unexpected emergency, where acts of panic, self-preservation and some other pretty fantastic behavior became common. Yes, I know; these were just movies. Who would have ever thought that disasters that happen in "real life," like the Oklahoma federal building bombing, the San Francisco automatic weapons slaughter, or the events of 9/11 would be far more bizarre? Are you with me?

This article approaches Disaster Planning from an owners' and operators' perspective. What can YOU do to help handle an emergency situation when it happens at your property or office? Here are some things to think about.

What you don't know can hurt you (and lots of other folks as well).

Murphy's Law assures us that a disaster will not occur when we're looking for it. So, in order to plan for an event we haven't yet identified that will occur at a time we don't expect, we will have to presume a set of various circumstances in advance, and then think through and document our response activities. For this very reason, property owners and managers should prepare detailed contingency plans to meet a number of potential emergency situations.

When your management team conducts fire and disaster drills, do the occupants "go along," or do they consider it an unnecessary interruption to their regular routine?

Let me ask you a question. Do you know how much time you will have to respond in a crisis? In a bad weather situation, you may have plenty of time to prepare, perhaps even for a tornado in this day of Doppler radar. On the other hand, many scenarios we classify as disasters can strike with no warning at all. (Terrorists, for example, seldom announce their plans in advance.) At that point, prevention ceases to be an option. It's better to fully understand that time will be a luxury we probably won't have when the real thing comes along.

Experience tells us that the highest potential for protection of life and property will occur if we are prepared to respond to a disaster with specific actions. Also, these actions will be performed more timely and efficiently if we've done them before. It's called practice. So the next time you have an opportunity to conduct or participate in a drill, you'll be doing yourself and everyone else concerned a big favor by cooperating fully – and insisting on compliance from all others as well.

Review your property's Emergency Procedures Handbook – NOW!

If your property doesn't have one, insist that one be provided through a qualified source. This document should be comprehensive and explicit. Actions should be prioritized, with duties assigned to specific individuals. These may include tasks to be performed by designated fire wardens, searchers, support staff or other positions of responsibility. Don't leave these jobs to the management staff only. Tenants should also be willing to take responsibility for their own safety and lend a hand.

Back-up assignments for designated personnel are also a good idea, since Murphy's Law also tells us that your designated fire warden will be on vacation the day of the emergency.

All actions in the handbook or plan should be clearly written for ease of understanding and compliance. Don't wait to try to clarify confusing instructions till the day you have to use them. By then, it will be far too late.

Keep your important business records in more than one location.

In the event of a fire (and subsequent water damage) that takes out not only your computer, but your hard copy files as well, will you be out of business?

In this day of electronic data creation, communication and records maintenance, take precautions to have your information backed up frequently or duplicated in some manner that will permit you to continue operations in the event original files are destroyed or become inaccessible. You will also want to maintain duplicate files at an alternate location for access. This might be as simple as making tape or server back-ups and keeping them in a separate place. Or, if your company is one of the "heavy hitters," you may maintain a set of duplicate data at a distant "hot" or "cold" site where business may continue to be conducted without significant interruption.

Be part of the solution, not the problem.

Take steps to discover and rehearse your responsibilities under different emergency situations. A good Emergency Procedures Manual will provide action plans requiring different kinds of response to various scenarios. Some of these may require evacuation of the premises; others will require that everyone stay put and lock all their doors. These are two very opposite activities that you don't want to have misunderstood. If you do the wrong thing, you may worsen the situation – for everyone.

Prepare to demonstrate to your tenants and your operations team just how they fit in with the big picture. Get them to make suggestions and volunteer their time to assist with procedures development, participation in drills, and working out kinks in the plan when they are discovered. Every plan can always be improved.

Of course you want your tenants and staff to be comfortable, carefree and safe. But you're also smart enough to know that sometimes circumstances tend to be unpredictable and go out of control. Let's try to plan ahead for these situations – so we can meet them head on when (not if) they occur.


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