Blueprint for Disaster Preparedness

The ever-present fear of terrorism has prompted the real estate community to spend lavishly — and in some cases wildly — to protect their assets. With little knowledge on which to base their decisions, owners and tenants have spent immense sums of money on preventive measures (see related story, page 44).

If a terrorist attack were to occur in or near a commercial real estate property, building personnel must be adequately prepared to meet the needs of the emergency responders. But, because most building management teams are so focused on preventing an attack and not reacting to one, they often fail miserably at knowing what to do in the event of a disaster.

In such instances, the “critical triangle,” as I call it, has not been addressed. If the building staff, tenants and the fire department perform inadequately, the potential for injuries, loss of life and property damage increases dramatically. The three most important elements of an effective disaster preparedness program include tenant training and fire drills, staff training, and the creation of building resource plans for the fire and police departments.

The critical triangle applies not only to acts of terrorism but also to other emergencies such as gas leaks and explosions, hazardous materials accidents, natural disasters, and, of course, fires. The larger the incident, the greater the potential for costly errors.

Common Misperceptions

The most common flaw I see on the part of building management is the unrealistic expectation that the fire department is familiar with their building. They assume that firefighters will be able to operate efficiently once they arrive on the scene.

One must keep in mind that fires at high-rise buildings are quite rare. There is a very good chance that even an experienced fire chief responding to a fire at a high-rise building may have never encountered a similar incident in his or her entire career.

The ability to provide emergency responders with a detailed blueprint of the building and its systems, including riser diagrams and floor plans, is absolutely essential to the success of a large-scale fire department operation.

Keep in mind that a life-safety evacuation plan required by code is not what the fire chief is looking for in these emergency situations, because such plans have no bearing on the tactical decision-making process. The purpose of a life-safety evacuation plan is to get people out of harm's way.

The professionals who are responsible for bringing the emergency under control require a different plan that provides them with a quick, yet thorough overview of the building's inner workings. For example, the plan shows the location of elevators, ventilation systems, the water supply lines and various communications systems. This information will make or break the outcome of the emergency and will have a direct bearing on the losses incurred.

What's At Stake?

Ignoring the needs of the emergency responders can turn a multi-alarm incident into a truly catastrophic event. Stop and consider how handcuffed firefighters would be if they were to enter a building after hours without benefit of that information. Property damage can soar without critical building data.

Many of today's high-rise office buildings include an assortment of computer rooms, trading floors and telecommunication areas, which can add to the complexity of the situation in the event of an emergency.

In many instances, the fire department must have power isolated at three remote locations (basement electrical feeds, emergency generators, uninterruptible power supplies) prior to their even stretching a hose line to fight a fire on a particular floor. Every fire chief I've talked to regarding just this one issue did not know this situation exists in our run-of-the-mill, high-rise office building fire. This situation provokes contemplation.

Pre-planning, in conjunction with effective staff and tenant training, will enhance the probability of a successful outcome during an emergency. The importance of building management adhering to the critical triangle can't be overstated. Remember, knowledge is power.

Curtis Massey is a former firefighter and president/CEO of Massey Enterprises Inc. in Virginia Beach, Va. The company develops building disaster plans for commercial real estate owners nationwide.

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