Everyone is Out of the Building. Now What?

Be prepared to communicate. This is an element of response that is often overlooked and needs to be continually practiced.

Imagine: emergency response drills have happened once a quarter for the past five years. Everyone knows exactly what actions to take, how to evacuate, and where to report afterward. From time to time, different scenarios have been presented, lessons were learned, and plans were updated to reduce risk and increase safety. If something bad happens, everything will be okay, right?

It really doesn't matter what the emergency is: fire, chemical spill, natural or manmade disaster. When the disaster is real, no matter how well-trained employees are or how quickly they are able to get out of harm’s way, there can still be some uncertainty about what happens next. Being able to clearly communicate plans and expectations will minimize some of that chaos.

The primary goals of traditional emergency response plans and trainings are to get people out of harm’s way and/or initiate a response. But after those objectives are met, facilities need to have a plan for what will happen tomorrow and next week. Unlike emergency action plans, contingency or other similar plans that are required by OSHA, EPA, or other governing agencies, most facilities do not have a regulatory obligation to create a Business Continuity Plan (BCP) or disaster recovery plan. But facilities that do have these plans are more likely to recover from a disaster and to do it more quickly than facilities without a plan.

A thorough BCP covers everything from replacing buildings and relocating call centers or production lines to cyber security, providing temporary shelters, and restocking office supplies. Some are relatively simple, while others have double or even triple redundancies for every aspect outlined in the plan.

Many BCPs take into account the fact that after a large-scale disaster, the facility may need to operate with only half or even a quarter of their current staff. Many plans have personnel directories and call tree diagrams to facilitate calling employees. Some even have emergency-only intranet sites that employees can access for information.

No matter the size or scale of the plan, communication is an element of response that is often overlooked and needs to be continually practiced during drills and reinforced during training sessions. Emergency responders will tell you that their first priority during every response is safety. After a response, when they are asked what could have gone better—no matter whether they are new to the team or a veteran member—nearly all of them will say communication. If responders who deal with emergencies and disasters on a regular basis consistently note communication as an area for improvement, it is also likely to be something that facilities need to spend time practicing.

Employees don't have the same communication needs as first responders, but after an emergency, they are likely to have the following questions. Whether it is part of the emergency response plan or the BCP, having a plan to answer them is the first step in effective communications after a crisis.

Where Do I Go for Information?
In the initial phases of a disaster, it might make sense to have employees stay at the safe location that has already been established as an evacuation checkpoint. If everyone who does not have a response role remains at these assembly areas, it facilitates the sharing of information and helps ensure that the messages shared with employees are consistent.

Pre-planning the phone numbers, websites, meeting location, or whatever other information employees may need to know following a disaster allows the information to be printed on cards or papers that can be handed out so that it is easier for everyone to remember and follow the instructions after they leave the facility. This also prevents employees from calling departments or supervisors who may not have the information that they need to know.

Who Is in Charge?
At a minimum, all emergency first responders (police, fire, and medical services) have at least a basic understanding of Incident Command Systems (ICS). This allows them to coordinate their efforts and objectives with other responders at large incidents and provides a framework for the overall response.  

Training everyone at the facility—from the CEO all the way down to a newly hired custodian—on ICS basics will help them to understand lines of authority during an emergency and why, if it is a very large event, their supervisor or CEO may not be the one in charge. This knowledge also helps to provide structure and minimize chaos.

What If a News Reporter Asks Me Questions?
After an incident, responders are focused on controlling the scene. Facilities are focused on getting operations back to normal. Reporters are focused on creating an engaging story for this evening’s newscast. Having a media policy and communicating it with every employee is a vital part of response plans. Part of that policy involves having a well-trained Public Information Officer (PIO) and a media plan that states how the facility will be secured after an incident, where the media will be staged, how often they will be briefed, and who is authorized to do those briefings.

Employees who have not been authorized to brief the media need to be taught not to talk to the media and whom to direct media inquiries to. They also need to be taught not to post their thoughts or pictures of the event on social media sites because these can easily be taken out of context, causing more harm than good.

What Happened?
Sometimes the events leading up to a disaster or emergency are clear. Most people, for example, understand the damage that can be caused by earthquakes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters. Employees should also have a good understanding of what happens if a process fails. 

Providing timely, honest, clear, and concise information after an incident limits rumors and helps to foster goodwill among both employees and external stakeholders. Having good information about what happened is also the first step in developing a plan to prevent the incident from happening again.

When Will the Facility Reopen?
Economic uncertainty isn't just something that corporations ponder. Employees struggle with these concerns as well, especially following a disaster. 

Having a BCP or recovery plan helps to present a realistic picture of both the resources and time that will be needed to restart operations. It also outlines what needs to happen in the interim so that individuals will know if schedules need to be shifted, as well as when and where they should report to work.

Is There Someone Who Can Help Me Sort This Out?
Emergencies are emotional events. They can be overwhelming for employees who are involved in the incident, as well as their families. Sometimes people need help to recognize how an incident is affecting them. Other times, they know that they need help but aren’t sure how or where to go to get it.

Facilities with Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) may already have the capability of having counselors ready and available after an incident. Facilities without EAPs may be able to coordinate these resources in advance through non-profit organizations, such as the Red Cross or community-based mental health organizations.

Responding to emergencies is stressful for everyone involved. Supplementing emergency response plans with communication procedures that are established ahead of time will help the facility to be better prepared to answer common questions that arise after an incident and set the stage for recovery efforts.

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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