In light of current events which all too frequently remind us of the danger posed to businesses and individuals in multi-tenant buildings, I’d like to address the topic of commercial building safety. This piece is meant to remind folks of the fundamentals in creating a successful blueprint for building emergencies and evacuations. More importantly, it is to prompt a discussion of and consideration for continually analyzing the level of risk paired with the appropriate level of security. Risk analysis and planning for perimeter protection, access control, tenant controls, lease spaces, and threat analysis are increasingly becoming higher priorities for security and facilities executives. This is why remembering the basics of a building emergency preparation is key to uncovering the likelihood, source, and risk level of potential vulnerabilities.
As you may be aware, most jurisdictions in the United States and the majority of standard lease agreements worldwide stipulate that it is incumbent upon a commercial building owner to provide safety and security for their tenants, visitors, and employees. This being said, the first goal of any commercial building manager or landlord should be the overall physical safety of the people under their roof. When an emergency happens, whether from inside the building or outside, building management has precious seconds to make command decisions on how to react to the crisis, how to manage the situation and finally, whether to evacuate or shelter in place. By establishing policies and safeguards, building supervisors, and therefore building tenants can be better prepared for and respond to a facility crisis.
I’d like to share with you some fundamentals of building safety and security to help you design and implement a comprehensive security system and engineering package. These basics are normally documented under the building’s Emergency Action Plan (EAP). The EAP describes procedures and actions to take during various types of emergencies. These plans go by many different names however, they all serve the same purpose – to explain how to effectively respond to an emergency. The plan is generally developed and overseen by the building manager responsible for safety and security and, in some jurisdictions, it is done in collaboration with the local Fire Marshall or their equivalent. Even when building management has developed a general policy, individual tenants may need to create and practice a plan that is specific to their leased space.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states that a building’s EAP must cover the “designated actions that employers and employees must take to ensure safety from fire and other emergencies.” Within the U.S., the fire/life-safety features explain that the EAP should also center on guidelines set forth in the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) 101-Life Safety Code. Organizations outside the U.S. should utilize equivalent local municipality/state or country code. The emergency plan should, at a minimum, include:
- Evacuation procedures
- Roles and responsibilities of key safety and security personnel during an emergency
- Roles and duties of tenant volunteers such as Fire Wardens, Searchers, and other positions deemed necessary based on local law, code or necessity
- Floor plans and diagrams for use by first responders
- Evacuation routes via a diagram
- Assembly areas
- Procedures for accounting for employees and visitors
- How to safely evacuate mobility impaired persons
- Re-entry procedures
The plan should also describe the duties of building emergency personnel, staff, and previously mentioned volunteers who will assist in an evacuation or emergency. It should also cover crisis-related procedures such as:
- Techniques used for detection
- How events are reported
- Communications/information systems
- Bomb/terrorist threat procedures
- Active shooter scenarios
- Incident alert/warning systems
- Accountability of personnel
- Shelter in Place (SIP) intentions*
*SIP is defined as taking the necessary actions to remain inside the facility if the conditions outside have become unsafe. Examples of possible reasons to shelter in place can be civil unrest, power outage, severe inclement weather, transit strike, chemical, biological, radiological incident or release, and hazardous material spills.
As it is the responsibility of building management to ensure that there is an EAP, it is also their responsibility in most jurisdictions to have fire and non-fire emergency drills. These drills should be practiced at least annually, if not more frequently, and all staff, to include senior management, should participate. If building management does not take the lead on conducting drills, tenant companies should proactively conduct the drills themselves. The success of any EAP will also require volunteer participation to help ensure that information pertaining to the plan is correctly disseminated on a timely basis. In addition to volunteer Floor Wardens, tenant personnel should be assigned to search each floor during a drill or actual emergency. They can also help coordinate accountability of personnel and ensure 100% drill participation.
Training and life safety awareness is not limited to designated times throughout the year. New employees should be provided with relevant sections of the EAP during their initial orientation. Even visitors should be briefed on emergency protocols when signing into a building. This can be accomplished by simply printing a few simple directives on the back of a visitor badge or handing them the information as they are given access to the interior of the building.
Finally, to properly protect people, mitigate risk and limit liability, the building management team and any tenant companies must play their respective roles to ensure the ongoing process of their EAP. The viability of building emergency procedures depends greatly upon the cooperation of all building occupants. It originates with senior management’s attitude regarding emergency response/preparedness, and their willingness to dedicate the time and resources to adequately manage the issue. How this is communicated and role-modeled by all stakeholders at all levels of a company, can mean the difference between a successful program and a catastrophe.
John Leavey is Executive Director of Operations for AT-RISK International. In this role, he manages all operational activity such as investigations, executive protection, intelligence gathering/analysis, and assessments. John has 35 years of experience in the private and government security sectors.