This is Part I of a 3-part series where we explore today’s challenges in emergency evacuation management and the opportunities for improvement offered by new innovations in safety technologies. 

Despite your best safety efforts and systems, things can go wrong. And whether preventable or not, accidents will happen. 

That’s why, aside from preventive safety systems, you have protocols and strategies to mitigate human and material damage after an accident or during an emergency situation. 

An evacuation plan is a legally required part of the overall emergency strategy. And yet, when activated for real, all too often an evacuation doesn’t go as planned, which can make a bad situation dramatically worse.  

One of the main reasons being that companies and managers underestimate the complexity of evacuations. The following are the most common mistakes in evacuation management. 

Mistake #1 Mistaking mere compliance for evacuation managment

While compliance definitely is essential, your emergency and evacuation procedures should be motivated by the desire to keep everyone on your premises safe from harm. Every possible way to improve safety and emergency systems simply must be explored to the fullest. Also: when your emergency plan today is still the same as the one that got through compliance a year ago, or is a copy paste from another company, that’s a devastating headline waiting to happen. 

Mistake #2: Unclear roles in an emergency

This boils down to: who’s expected to do what? Assumptions, however straightforward or logical, simply do not suffice. This leads to the wrong people giving wrong directions or multiple ‘authority’ figures giving contradictory instructions. This can lead to precious time being lost, confusion, panic and stampedes. A clear and effectively communicated ‘chain of command’ is an absolute must. And this chain needs to be supported by a seamless system for back-ups. 

Mistake #3: Undefined accountability

As a safety expert pointedly states: “You need accountability so that  for every element within the plan, somebody in particular is responsible”. This makes sure that the things that need to get done, actually get done. Therefore it should be clear which department is responsible for training, for compiling and updating an emergency and evacuation plan, for organizing drills and even for implementing possible learnings from them. 

Mistake #4: Ignoring critical audiences

Too often emergency planning, training and drills ignore visitors, contractors, second, third and weekend shift employees. Visitors may have the least sense of their environment and emergency procedures, but are the most likely to panic, to not being included in a headcount … and to win a lawsuit. OSHA designates you as the ‘host employer’, and as such responsible for everyone on your premises. Solid evacuation management is key.

Mistake #5: Lack of training and drills

Appointed safety wardens need proper, regular and up to date training. The efficacy of which needs to be evaluated during emergency and evacuation drills. Drills that also familiarize your employees with standard as well as alternative exit routes, mustering zones and aiding less mobile colleagues and visitors. Additionally, these drills point out any sloppiness when it comes to keeping those exit routes and bottlenecks free of obstruction. 

Mistake #6: Inadequate muster zones

Muster zones, assembly points or refugee areas may look adequate on paper and even prove adequate during drills. But do they allow room for all the expected employees, contractors, visitors and emergency services vehicles? What if you need to evacuate in pitch dark or extreme cold weather conditions? What if a muster zone is not or no longer considered safe? And how do lesser variants on these conditions affect the efficiency of a headcount?

Mistake #7: Halfhearted headcount

While the law in most countries requires evacuation wardens to account for everyone (for instance to the fire chief), many employers report that 50% to 90% does not show up for the headcount during evacuation drills. It’s the company’s job to ensure full compliance from every employee and worker or to take disciplinary action when needed. 

Want to know how recent advances in safety technologies tackle some of the toughest emergency evacuation challenges? Be sure to check out Part II 

Sources: Disaster Resource GUIDE for Facilities, American Society of Safety Professionals

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