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Emergency Operations Plans: Actions Taken in the Initial Minutes of an Emergency Often Dictate the Outcome

By Don Schmidt, Preparedness, LLC: An employee complains of chest pains. A delivery truck backs into the gas meter, and a strong odor of gas invades the building. A “suspicious” package is found in the unattended lobby. Gunfire erupts in the shop area, and coworkers are fleeing. A severe thunderstorm warning has been issued following ... Read more

By Don Schmidt, Preparedness, LLC:

An employee complains of chest pains. A delivery truck backs into the gas meter, and a strong odor of gas invades the building. A “suspicious” package is found in the unattended lobby. Gunfire erupts in the shop area, and coworkers are fleeing. A severe thunderstorm warning has been issued following an earlier tornado watch. Blocks away a group of protesters is growing larger. The power goes out on a bitterly cold day. Water is leaking through the ceiling of the server room.

Who is going to act? What actions should be taken to safeguard life and protect property? How quickly can they react? How effectively can they act? The actions taken in the critical initial minutes of an emergency often dictate the outcome.

An emergency operations plan that is risk-based, makes best use of available internal and external resources, and is executable by an organization with defined roles and responsibilities is essential.

Objectives, Priorities & Resources
The number one priority of emergency operations is to safeguard life. Other objectives include protection of property, the environment, and the organization’s reputation. Continuity of business operations benefits from effective emergency operations.

Priorities for emergency operations become apparent when conducting a risk assessment. Threats and hazards with high probability of occurrence or potential for significant impacts should be high on the list. The increasing frequency and severity of civil unrest, active shooter incidents, wildland fire, power outages, and severe weather warrants the need for enhanced planning.

Often overlooked when considering objectives and priorities is the availability and capabilities of internal and external resources. Are sufficient personnel with the required knowledge, skills, and abilities available during operational hours to respond to foreseeable threats? Are facilities protected with detection, alerting, warning, suppression, and life safety systems that have been designed, installed, and maintained in accordance with national standards? What are the capabilities of public emergency services, their knowledge of the facility and its hazards, and their response times? Answers to these questions will identify resource limitations that must be overcome for effective response to emergencies.

Planning for Emergencies
The emergency operations plan is a product of a process that includes understanding risk, the availability and capabilities of resources, and applicable regulatory and accreditation requirements. The risk assessment identifies threats and hazards that require protective actions. The resource needs assessment identifies the required personnel, competencies, systems, equipment, and supplies for response to the identified risks. The assessment also evaluates the availability and capabilities of resources and identifies limitations that must be overcome. Minimum requirements for emergency response are established by applicable Federal and state health, safety, and environmental regulations, state and local fire codes, and accreditation requirements (e.g., Joint Commission for health care facilities).

Together, the risk assessment, resource needs assessment, regulations, and accreditation requirements inform decisions about the functions of incident management teams and the actions they will take.

Planning Committee. Development of an emergency operations plan benefits from the input of subject matters experts within the organization. Representatives from management, environmental health & safety, security, human resources, facilities, operations, regulatory affairs, communications (public affairs, corporate communications, etc.), information technology, and employees can provide valuable insight.

The planning process should coordinate emergency planning with the related programs of risk management, environmental health and safety, regulatory affairs, business continuity, crisis management, and crisis communications. . Reach out to public emergency services to gain an understanding of their availability, capabilities, and response times. Management should approve plans after committing funds for personnel training and exercises, facility systems and equipment, and materials and supplies.

Regulations & Standards: Evacuation plans are required by regulations and state and local fire codes for certain types of buildings and occupancies (i.e., how a building is used). Sheltering in place is a protective action seeing increasing regulatory requirements. If emergency medical services are not in “near proximity” to a facility, on-site capabilities may be required by safety and health regulations. If permit-required confined spaces require regular entry, then a rescue team may be arranged with outside providers, or an in-house capability must be established. Facilities manufacturing, treating, or storing large quantities of highly hazardous materials are required to develop plans for release of hazardous chemicals. For non-regulated sites, a hazardous materials team may be justified if spills of limited quantities of hazardous materials are common and delayed response of cleanup contractors results in excessive downtime.

Conformity with national standards, which have been developed and are updated regularly by subject matter experts, is advised. Keep in mind that standards may be incorporated, in whole or in part, into regulations, and they are used to establish a “standard of care” by plaintiff attorneys in civil litigation.

Decisions about the functions of the team or teams (e.g., medical, firefighting, hazardous materials, and rescue) and the level of capability (e.g., first aid or AED response, incipient stage or advanced structural firefighting, hazardous materials awareness, etc.) should be approved by management taking regulations, training, systems, equipment, and long-term costs into consideration.

Risk Assessment & Impact Analysis. The frequency and magnitude of hazards, vulnerability to the hazards, and potential impacts to life, property, operations, and the environment inform planning. Identify hazards that could impact the site, employees, buildings, operations, and the environment.

  • Medical emergencies (illness and injury)
  • Fire (including wildland fire)
  • Explosion
  • Entrapment/rescue (in machinery, confined space, or high angle)
  • Elevator emergency
  • Hazardous materials (chemical odor, spill, or release)
  • Odor of gas or gas leak
  • Severe thunderstorm and tornado
  • Flooding
  • Hurricane
  • Severe winter weather
  • Earthquake
  • Power outage
  • Water leak/broken pipe
  • Bomb threat
  • Unattended or suspicious package
  • Threat of violence, possession of a weapon
  • Active shooter/hostile event
  • Protest or demonstration
  • Civil unrest
  • Terrorism (chemical, biological, and radiological)

How vulnerable are the site, building, and occupants to the identified hazards? Identify potential scenarios for each identified hazard considering the location of the hazard—outside the property line, on-site, within the building, and in proximity to large concentrations of people or critical equipment. Assess how building occupants will evacuate and shelter-in-place taking into consideration the number and concentrations of people within the building including those with disabilities.

Facilities in the path of hurricanes should plan for high winds and flooding rainfall. Coastal facilities in the path should evaluate the potential for storm surge. Facilities in “tornado alley” should have tornado warning systems and hardened shelters that all employees can reach quickly. Facilities located in flood zones should have flood emergency plans.

All emergency operations plans should address medical emergencies. A minimal plan would include alerting trained responders (internal and or external). Training employees to use automated external defibrillators and perform chest compressions is becoming standard. It is common for facilities with a large workforce and hazardous processes or highly hazardous materials to have trained paramedics and ambulances—especially if the response time of public emergency services is slow or if specialized decontamination and treatment protocols may be necessary.

If the building is not equipped with sprinklers and special extinguishing systems for hazardous processes, there may be the potential for a fast-spreading fire. This scenario would require prompt detection and warning of building occupants, and a robust evacuation and accountability plan. It might also dictate organizing a fire brigade, which brings with it significant regulatory requirements.

Plans should address increasingly common security risks including acts of violence—workplace violence, active shooter/hostile events, civil unrest, suspicious/unattended packages, bomb threats, and terrorism. The risk assessment should evaluate the ability to detect threats and acts of violence, alert first responders, and warn people to take protective action.

The majority of Federally declared disasters involve natural hazards—flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, severe winter storms, and arctic freeze. Damage causing earthquakes are less probable but have catastrophic potential. Evaluation of the potential impacts of natural hazards should inform mitigation efforts as well life safety and property conservation.

Extended interruption of utilities including electricity, telecommunications, water, natural gas, and sanitary systems challenge operational continuity. Outages that could compromise the ability to safely operate manufacturing processes require emergency planning.

Reference: Preparedness Bulletin Risk Assessment, Acts of Violence, Civil Unrest, Hurricane, Thunderstorm & Tornado, Winter Preparedness, etc.

Incident Management Team(s). Management of different types of incidents may require a single or multiple teams, internal and or external. It is common to organize multiple teams to respond to different types of emergencies. Environmental health and safety or human resources may lead a medical team. Security often leads responses to security threats including trespassers, bomb threats, and reports of suspicious packages. Incidents involving the building and infrastructure are often managed by facilities management.

Internal teams may be limited to an evacuation team and a team directing building occupants to “shelter-in-place.” Evacuation and shelter-in-place teams require staffing throughout the building. These teams may be led by a “Fire Safety or Life Safety Director” as required by regulations for high rise buildings.

External “teams” include public and or contract fire, hazmat, rescue, emergency medical services (EMS), and law enforcement as well as teams from surrounding facilities that have agreed to provide mutual aid.

Figure 1. Example Incident Management Organization for a private sector facility that aligns with the Incident Command System. The PIO, Safety Officer, and Liaison Officer are Command Staff. Operations, Planning, Logistics, and Finance/Administration are the section chiefs. Beneath the section chiefs are teams that change based on need. Potential assignments (e.g., “Facility Manager”) are suggestions.

Alerting, warning, and communications protocols, procedures, systems, and equipment are essential for effective incident management. The resource needs assessment should evaluate means to alert internal and external resources to respond to an emergency, warn persons in danger to take protective action, and enable communications between responders. Alerting, warning, and communications resources may include fire detection, surveillance, and process safety systems, mass notification systems (voice, SMS text, and smartphone apps), occupant warning systems (horns and strobes), two-way radios, and other systems. Protocols—the circumstances or criteria for alerting and warning—must be clear so the decision to call for help is not delayed. Procedures must be well established and practiced, so that clear and concise messages are effectively communicated.

Incident management facilities include an emergency operations center (EOC), physical or virtual, that provides planning, communications, resource management, logistics, finance, and administrative direction and support for field operations. It may also house the “incident commander” for a forecast event (e.g., severe weather) or a situation that involves multiple geographic locations. The potential location of the on-scene incident command post (ICP) where the scene incident commander manages tactical operations should be pre-identified for different scenarios.

Emergency Operations Plan
Emergency plans can be very comprehensive. At the same time, they must be immediately accessible and actionable. Digital plans and wireless communications address both requirements. Hard copies of plans can be printed and stored in emergency “go bags,” distributed to team members, and kept at designated locations. Digital plans with embedded hyperlinks provide quick navigation to guidance and access to forms (e.g., incident action plan, chronological log, bomb threat checklist, etc.), information, and diagrams on connected servers. The use of flowcharts can distill complex information to guide initial actions.

Figure 2. Example flowchart from an emergency operations plan prepared by Preparedness, LLC. The flowchart guides decision-making from detection through incident termination. Hyperlinks in blue text at the bottom of each page provide navigation to related content or back to the table of contents.

There is flexibility in the outline for the EOP except for facilities consolidating multiple hazardous materials response plans that are required by Federal statutes and regulations. Plans typically include a policy statement and must include organizational statement(s) if a fire brigade or hazmat teams is organized. Other content includes plan adoption and authorization, telephone directory for internal and external resources, incident management team(s) organization charts, functional roles and responsibilities aligned with the Incident Command System (ICS), and the incident management system’s concept of operations.

Material common to multiple threats or hazards may be organized within annexes or modules within the EOP. Alerting, warning, and communications is common to all incidents and protective actions for life safety (e.g., evacuation and shelter-in-place) are applicable to most incidents. Tactical plans for specific types of threats and hazards would follow. Appendices at the end of the EOP contain reference information including site and building floor plans, pre-incident plans (building construction, occupancy description, hazards on-site, life safety and fire protection systems, etc.), details of resources (e.g., mass notification systems, radio systems, emergency “go kits,” emergency operations center), and more.

Concept of Operations: Response to most incidents follows the path depicted in Figure 3. An incident may be detected by an automated system (e.g., fire, intrusion, process safety or supervisory) or by human being. The first report may be communicated face to face, by telephone, two-way radio, or automated system to an on-site or remote receiving point. Public warnings may be received audibly (tornado siren) or digitally (Public Warning and Alerting System) to smartphones.

Figure 3. Concept of Operations for Incident Management. Incidents progress along a timeline beginning with detection or discovery and should utilize an incident management system that includes alerting of first responders, situation analysis, and a verbal or written incident action plan to safeguard life, protect property and the environment, and communicate with stakeholders.

When an incident is detected, the incident management team should be alerted to respond, and command should be established in accordance with the incident management system.

Incident Management System: Every emergency operations plan should incorporate a management system aligned with the Incident Command System (ICS) used in the public sector and suggested for use in the private sector. ICS utilizes a modular organizational structure with functional roles and responsibilities. A modular organization is scalable meaning it can expand and contract, as necessary. Annexes for types of incidents should define roles and responsibilities for each functional position. The most competent and available person should assume command of the incident and appoint others to fill those positions required for the nature and magnitude of the incident.

The organization should define the chain of command, and the incident commander should be vested with authority to make decisions and delegate authority. Lines of communications and protocols for coordination with public safety (fire, rescue, EMS, law enforcement), contractors, and others who may be called upon should be established in advance.

Read the Preparedness Bulletin “Incident Management System” for detailed guidance.

Early detection and reporting of hazards or conditions that could threat life or property may provide the time to evacuate or shelter occupants from the hazard. Whereas delayed detection, failure to recognize a hazard such as an over-pressurized vessel ready to explode, or failure to report the hazard may allow time to run out before action can be taken. Training must ensure that everyone knows how to report an emergency. Those receiving reports of emergencies must be trained so they know how to warn occupants to take protective action and how to alert those who need to respond.

Once alerted, the incident management team must assess the situation. What is nature of the hazard? Where is the hazard located? Is it moving? Are people threatened? Is the property, building, or part of the building threatened? Who has been alerted to respond, what is their response time, and what other resources are needed? Are the required resources available?

The risk assessment and development of scenarios should identify the hazard-specific information that must be quickly assessed. Information must be gathered from multiple sources such as weather radar, surveillance cameras, fire alarm control panel, utility monitoring systems, the person reporting the incident, and responding incident management team members. The incident management team must quickly complete the initial “size up” of the incident and order warning, protective actions such as evacuation, and alerting of additional resources such as the public emergency services. The situation analysis continues throughout the incident to inform decisions about strategies and tactics.

A verbal incident action plan (IAP) and subsequent written plan for significant incidents should be developed and communicated to all responders. IAP, incident briefing, chronological log of events, assignments, and other forms should be compiled within the EOP to manage the response until the situation is stabilized and the incident terminated. Digital plans should include hyperlinks to these forms.

Protective Actions for Life Safety. The emergency operations plan should include actions to safeguard people with special attention to ensure individuals with disabilities are protected.

  • Evacuation (“run”) when there is a hazard inside the building, and occupants move to a safe In high-rise buildings and some health care facilities, occupants may be instructed to remain in place (“defend in place”) or move to an area of refuge within the building.
  • Lockdown (“hide”) when there is an armed perpetrator in the building or believed to be inside, but no safe path to escape is available. This option is often referred to as “Shelter-in-Place.”
  • Counter (“fight”) when confronted with an armed perpetrator individuals must take action to protect themselves and the safety of
  • Shelter-In-Place (SIP) when there is an exterior hazard such as a tornado, severe thunderstorm, or airborne hazard such as chemicals released from a transportation accident. There are variations in SIP depending on the type of threat or

(Reference Preparedness Bulletin Protective Actions for Life Safety)

Threat or hazard-specific tactical plans: Individual annexes should define actions in response to detection or discovery of an incident, situation analysis, alerting of first responders, warning of persons potentially in danger, protective actions for life safety, property conservation, environmental protection, and incident stabilization. The threat or hazard-specific roles and tasks for each functional position (e.g., incident commander, operations, etc.) within the ICS structure should be defined. During an incident, this enables the incident commander to quickly assign roles, and assigned team members brief themselves using the EOP.

Figure 4. This page from a Preparedness, LLC plan defines roles and responsibilities, highlights hazards and precautions, and and provides special instructions that complement decision-making flowcharts. Hyperlinks that connect to websites, initiate email communication, access contact information and resource lists provide extended functionality.

Tactical plans must consider the nature of the hazard, its current and potential magnitude, location, and movement or potential spread. The magnitude and path of a hurricane dictates preparedness actions. The intensity and spread of fire in a building is impacted by building construction, effective fire walls, the operation of a code compliant fire sprinkler system, and the response of the fire department or fire brigade. Plans should be focused on priorities and achieving objectives established at the beginning of the planning process.

Read Preparedness Bulletins on Protective Actions for Life Safety, Acts of Violence, Civil Unrest, Thunderstorms, Lightning and Tornadoes, Hurricane Preparedness, Flood Preparedness, and Winter storms.

Crisis communications. Most organizations have a plan for external communications, and the EOP should connect with this plan. A local spokesperson (Public Information Officer or “PIO”) should be assigned to coordinate with the PIO’s of public safety agencies and the organization’s communications team.

Implementation, Maintenance & Continuous Improvement
Actions to implement the emergency operations plan should be summarized in the plan. Assignment of personnel to teams, training, drills, and exercises should be identified. Required resources (systems, equipment, materials, and supplies) should be inventoried and responsibility assigned to ensure all resources are available and in reliable condition.

The EOP is the product of the planning effort, and plans need to be reviewed periodically to ensure they continue to meet the needs of the organization. After-action reviews should be conducted after significant incidents, and issues should be addressed through a corrective action program.

Periodic reviews should evaluate the adequacy of the EOP. Changes to the risk profile, organization, facilities, resources, regulations, and financial support for the program should trigger a review of the EOP.

Federal statutes and regulations (e.g., risk management planning under the Clean Air Act Section 112(r), contingency planning under RCRA, and facility response planning under the Oil Pollution Act) require emergency response planning. The National Response Team (NRT), published the Integrated Contingency Plan (“One Plan”) Guidance, providing a mechanism by which a facility may consolidate multiple emergency response plans into one functional plan.


About the Author: Donald L. Schmidt, ARM, CBCP, MCP, CBCLA, CEM®, is the CEO of Preparedness, LLC a consulting firm specializing in risk assessment, prevention/mitigation, emergency management, business continuity, and crisis management. He is the past chair and current member of the NFPA 1600 Technical Committee and member of ISO 292 Security and resilience committee, ASTM E54 committee on Homeland Security, published author of numerous books, and instructor for multiple organizations.

Email: DLS@PreparednessLLC.com

Website: https://preparednessllc.com

This article originally appeared in the Preparedness Bulletin and is reprinted with permission here. Subscribe to future Preparedness Bulletins here.

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