What OHS Officers Need to Know About Digitizing Emergency Management

What OHS Officers Need to Know About Digitizing Emergency Management

Digital emergency management systems are transforming safety drills and evacuations by providing accurate, real-time data and improving efficiency.

For workers, safety drills are often an opportunity to step out for a moment and gain a minute of respite in an otherwise busy day. But for the safety officers in charge of organizing and executing the drill, the experience is often anything but relaxing, carrying the significant responsibility of ensuring the safety of every individual is accounted for.

That’s why organizations are increasingly looking to transition their evacuation management, mustering, roll calls, emergency notifications and record keeping to integrated digital solutions. Emergency management systems (EMS) allow safety officers to take the guesswork out of the process so that they know exactly who is on-site during evacuation events and can access key information such as headcount from the convenience of their smartphone, tablet or laptop.

The Cost of Poor Emergency Management

When managing safety drills with manual tools, anything that can go wrong often does. Standard tools such as paper clipboards and megaphones may be easy to use, but they are prone to errors and redundant work.

One of the biggest stressors of safety drills and evacuation events is having unaccounted-for personnel, leading to a mad dash to rectify the inconsistency and potential safety risks. A common source of missing personnel is not employees but rather visitors and guests, as these logs are often maintained on separate systems, or worse, a paper logbook. In a real-life emergency, the last thing anyone wants a safety officer to be doing is trying to find the day’s visitor log in a flurry or panic.

Disorganized safety drills and emergency evacuations can jeopardize the safety of employees and visitors and have a material impact on the organization. As safety officers work to rectify inconsistencies in roll call, this can lead to prolonged downtime, forcing the operation to make up for loss of productivity, whether in overtime or by running their operation at a faster yet riskier pace.

In an age of widespread digitization, it’s astounding that manual processes still dominate the emergency preparedness practices of manufacturers, warehouses, distribution centers and other industrial facilities.

Out with the Clipboards, in with the EMS

The way safety drills are done today isn’t too dissimilar to what was experienced 20 years ago. An alarm is pulled. Employees look around startled and confused and then proceed to follow their peers out of the nearest exit. Once they exit the premises, they’re met with a chaotic scene of workers and swiveling heads trying to discern whether they’re in the right place. Evacuation coordinators may attempt to herd the mass like a gang of blind sheep to little avail. An individual—often with a high-visibility vest and megaphone—will take headcount from the muffled blaring of the megaphone. If visitors or temporary workers are on-site, it’s unlikely they’ve been included in the count. Rather, a trust system is adopted, and the onus is put on individual employees to account for their guests, an approach often met with mixed results.

Stop-watches—if the officer even remembers to start it—are used to measure the performance of these drills, but there’s no certainty that they were started or stopped at the right time.

That’s all to say, safety drills are overdue for innovation. Today’s tools may be louder—megaphones and alarms, for instance—but they aren’t certain to be much smarter. In a world where algorithms can provide optimal bedtime or control machines to produce complex parts and products, it’s surprising that emergency evacuations have not evolved much.

Setting the New Emergency Standard

Safety officers are looking for ways to keep their workers safe and organized. Knowing that there is technology designed to do just that, many have made the switch from manual processes to using an emergency and evacuation management system, allowing them to better control and analyze their safety drills and evacuations.

Who, What, When, Where

The optimal emergency management system excels in four key areas: who, what, when and where. Focusing on these areas allows an opportunity to assess whether a system provides enough control and ground cover during safety drills and real emergency events.

  1. The ideal system can identify who is in a facility, which should include employees, temporary workers, contractors, guests and more. Beyond just identifying personnel, the system should be able to display an accurate roll call list for safety officers to use at mustering points and allow them to “check off” individuals that are accounted for or who require further assistance.
  2. Emergency management systems should be flexible and able to adapt to what type of emergency drill is being executed. Whether it’s a chemical spill or an active shooter, the communication strategy should differ to ensure safety and manage the expectations and actions of evacuees.
  3. Timing is everything in safety drills. As the core metric of evacuation performance, the ideal system should be able to record when an evacuation is triggered and track the speed it takes to evacuate the premises, while more advanced systems allow drilling down into everyone's individual evacuation time. Additionally, systems maintain a highly detailed trail of events, allowing safety teams to track performance over time and reflect on past drills to identify areas of improvement and enhance future drill performance. 
  4. Finally, the system should direct evacuees to where they need to be in a timely fashion, allowing a quick account of all individuals. This capability allows drills to quickly wrap and get teams back to work, saving businesses from costly downtime.

Bridging the Gap with Visitor Management 

Emergency management systems are not without their shortcomings. One of the most common gaps is their inability to account for visitors and contractors during safety drills and evacuations. This occurs because the list of visitors (or contractors or temporary workers) is often maintained in a separate system or a paper logbook, leading these individuals to be omitted from the emergency management system roll call.

That’s why any consideration of installing an emergency management system should also include the installation and/or integration of a visitor management system (VMS). Visitor management systems track all incoming temporary guests, such as visitors, maintenance workers and contractors.

Integrating emergency and visitor management systems effectively closes the gap by establishing a real-time data stream between the visitor log and roll call list. What’s more, extending an emergency management system to access visitor contact information allows the transmission of communications to all on-site personnel, not just employees. 

Working together, these systems not only boost the functionality of emergency protocols but also contribute to a safer, more responsive environment.

Stepping into the Future of Safety

As organizations face increased pressure to maintain safe environments, emergency management systems are increasingly becoming an essential tool in their arsenal. As safety and security experts will attest, manual methods struggle to keep up with the unpredictable nature of safety drills, leading to inaccuracies and risks. An EMS, on the other hand, provides a complete toolkit that not only strengthens emergency response but also fosters a culture of preparedness. Going forward, the integration of technology in emergency preparedness is clear; it is an indispensable tool for organizations that prioritize worker safety.

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