Overcoming Barriers to Emergency Preparedness
5/14/2018 12:21:36 PM

By Chris Mazzola

In 2003 I graduated for the National Fire Academy in Concord, New Hampshire. Up until that point I thought emergency management was a job that simply required common sense and that anyone could do it. The Fire Academy taught me that the “common sense” needed in an emergency was a lot more complicated than I had assumed and certainly a lot less common. Everywhere I went after I graduated I saw things differently. I drove my wife crazy pointing out the flaws and dangers I would see in the world and would make comments to the effect that everyone should know this “stuff”. Of course, she would quickly remind me that not too much earlier, I was also blind to the same dangers.

A few years later, when I became the manager of a high-rise apartment building, I was determined to make emergency management a priority. I quickly learned that the property had no written emergency response plan and that the plan it did have resided only in the head of the previous manager. That would have been okay if that manager was still the manager, was present in the building 24/7, and never took a break or slept. In other words, it was not okay.

There are a number of reasons why many properties are in similar situations, but three stand out. First, there is the perception that “this is not my issue or problem.” Many view emergency preparedness and management as the job of local fire, police, and other first responders. As we have seen far too often lately, while law enforcement and first responders are critical to resolving emergencies, those who are caught up in the emergency situation also need to take responsibility for being prepared and taking action. And responsibility doesn't end with those in harm’s way. Others who are in the position to help are often held accountable, both legally and morally. Many states have passed so-called Good Samaritan Laws, which, in essence, say that if people are present, and in the position to help without putting themselves at risk, they must do so. This responsibility to take reasonable precaution and action is more pronounced when we are in a role such as a property manager.

Another reason properties fail to develop effective emergency response plans is the fear of liability. The thought is, “if we do the wrong thing it will get us in trouble.” While it makes sense to proceed with caution, failing to take action actually puts a property at greater risk. Having said that, we need to know our limits. Doing too little exposes our residents and our property to risk as is doing too much or doing the wrong things. A well thought out and written standard operating procedure (SOP) is the first step in mitigating this risk.

That brings us to the second reason that commonly gets in the way of emergency preparedness: holding off until we have a comprehensive plan or “perfect” plan. We may start developing an emergency plan and never complete it for fear that we haven’t covered every eventuality or thought through all the scenarios. Yes, there are hundreds of possible dangers or calamities that might occur, but you can’t let that scare you into inaction. Start with the basics and expand from there. Focus on the most likely threats and address others as you have time and access to the knowledge you need.

Also realize that the plan needs to be re-visited from time to time as the environment it is intended for changes and as threats change. For example, few of us worried about terrorist attacks impacting our communities a decade or two ago, but now we know that these events can happen anyplace.

A third inhibitor to good emergency planning is our own fear of how we will react when the time comes to implement the plan. Many people are fearful that even with a good plan and decent training they will panic in the face of a true emergency and forget what to do. This is the most common issue I have run into and it is understandable. In order to become an EMT I had to take more than 100 hours of training, a very difficult written test and a practical test. Only four of the thirty students in my class passed the first time. Even with these rigorous standards, the fear of how you would react to that first emergency was with you. However, I remember the instructor telling us that it will take time and practice and that while you will not remember everything you will remember some things. I have heard CPR instructors tell students the same thing: “You may not get the count right of breathing-to-compressions but you will remember breathing and compressions.”

So, if your property does not have a written emergency plan or if the one it has seems inadequate to you, it’s time to get started. Local emergency agencies can help. Most fire departments are happy to help you devise or strengthen your evacuation plans. Local law enforcement can give you recommendations on how to handle different kinds of situations. Insurance representatives can be a good source of information on reducing risks and responding to emergencies.

It is also important to think about how you can support the efforts of first responders. For example, in the high-rise senior housing building we operated we devised a simple procedure. When security personnel at our front desk became aware that EMS (Emergency Management System) had been notified of a situation within the building or when they initiated the call themselves, a message went out over the radio that “EMS is in route”. This statement kicked off our emergency management response. Everyone stopped what they were doing and proceeded to carry out their pre-assigned (and practiced) duties:

  • One person cleared the front of the building of vehicles and stopped or rerouted traffic to stay clear of the entryway of the building. That person would also notify the rest of the staff when EMS was on-site
  • Another staff member locked out the larger of the building’s two elevators, not allowing any other resident to use it and set it to stay open for the EMS crew to be taken directly to the floor of the incident
  • Two staff members would go to the location of the incident to clear the area of onlookers as well as to assess the situation and communicate to the staff person at the front entrance
  • Staff escorted the EMS crew to the floor without interruption and held the elevator in order for the crew to make a quick exit
  • If a person was to be transported, the escort staff would call on the radio that there was a “transport” and a staff member would clear the lobby in order to allow for privacy

This simple procedure was greatly appreciated in the EMS community and led to other enhancements to our plan as emergency agencies realized we were leading the way.

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