Corporate emergency management is a big deal — at least for the 72 percent of companies large and small that actually have a plan to deal with emergencies. Standards and models abound and government Web sites are filled with thousands of pages of material on planning and responding. But with all that help and more experience than any of us involved in emergency management would like to have, it’s rare that one finds a flawless response to the disaster of the moment.

So what goes wrong?

Mostly, it’s the little things. Communications fail. People you counted on are away. The carefully contrived plan component didn’t actually work when tested by the real thing. Your plan didn’t mesh with the community plan.

After 50 years in the emergency management field, with hundreds of events and a multitude of grand plans behind me, I’ve got some tested ideas on a number of those little things that I’ll share with you.

Consider this basic fact: The greater and more widespread the disaster, the less help you can expect from the outside world. For a fire in your warehouse, fire companies will be there in minutes. If a chemical tanker on the interstate releases chlorine gas, you might get advice by phone to shelter in place. A disastrous storm may leave you on your own for days — as we saw with Katrina.

Tested ideas
Here are those ideas that may go a long way toward making your response to the emergency effective:

1) Keep the plan short. Depending on facility size and complexity… and the regulations that apply…you could have dozens and dozens of pages by the time the plan is finished. That’s your training outline — your classroom text. Your working plan should be a very few pages, widely distributed, and easily scanned as a checklist during the emergency.

2) Create an emergency coordinating committee. If emergency planning is a one-person activity, you’ll have a one-person response. A committee comprised of senior management, department heads, maintenance, human resources, safety, trucking, finance, quality — and anyone else you’d call on during an emergency — gets you buy-in and resources. Wait until the emergency and ask for help and the response may be, “What’s your charge number?” Make them part of the committee and they’ll be there offering help at the start.

3) Analyze all the threats. Use binoculars, not a magnifying glass — and plenty of employee input — to find what’s going to cause you trouble. If your safety process works, you’ve probably eliminated most internal threats. More likely, it will be something from outside your facility, such as weather, transportation incidents, neighboring facilities, power failure, terrorism, criminal acts and disease that causes the biggest problem.

4) Tap trained resources. Survey your employees to identify volunteer firefighters, EMS providers, reserve military and law enforcement and Citizen Corps-trained responders.

5) Give your employees a job. You’ve got lots of folks who know your facility, its structure and staffing. Use them!

Once they are safely outside, assign jobs such as: “runner” to help with communications; “security” to prevent return to the building until authorized; “traffic control” to direct vehicles in and out of the grounds and keep lanes open for emergency vehicles; and “liaison” to stay with community response commanders to inform and assist.

6) Verify total evacuation. Most personnel accounting systems do not work!

With sign-in/sign-out sheets, people forget to do one or both. It’s the same with status boards. Department musters leave supervisors asking, “Did Joe get back from the parts run?” Vendors and visitors may be on their own. The result is that no one can be sure everyone’s out and the fire department is faced with a total building search under far less than favorable — often downright dangerous — conditions.

Try this: Make up search team cards that call for searching specific areas in no more than two minutes (generally the incipient stage). Pass the tags out as people begin the evacuation. By the time the community responders arrive, you’ll have reports from all searchers and will be able to tell response command personnel that everyone is out (or that one or two specific areas could not be searched).

7) Inventory your resources. Know the equipment and resources you have on hand and where they can be found. For example, three business portable radios are in security, maintenance has ten flashlights, there’s a rescue tripod in maintenance, security has 30 traffic cones and the stock room has 20 hard hats.

8) Partner with the community. When you have a problem, you need the community and they need you. If the first time you see the local fire or police chief is in the midst of a disaster, there is no common understanding, no trust, and no opportunity to direct operations toward a quick and successful outcome.

Get to know those folks. Invite them in for a facility tour. Take all the community command people to lunch or dinner and discuss your common problem. Call frequently to tip them off to new issues or changes in process. Invite them to a meeting of your management team or emergency coordinating committee.

9) Line up outside resources. You might need food for your people and emergency responders. If so, have an arrangement with the local food store or deli to provide sandwiches, soup and drinks on short notice with pre-arranged payment. Have an agreement with a neighboring school, plant, store or health club to house your people for a short duration in bad weather. Ask your occupational health provider to have a medical response team on call if needed.

Only if you have an arrangement can you be reasonably certain that you’ll get what you need during a significant event.

10) Train in emergency recognition. Do all your people know when a problem is developing? Tell them what a change in machine sound means and what gauge readings indicate trouble. Cover what smells are OK and which ones are dangerous. Lives have been saved because someone yelled a warning just in time.

11) Sound an effective alarm. Make your alarm distinctive and be certain that it can be heard in all areas. Then, trust your people and their training. If one of them pulls the alarm, don’t take time for management verification. The two or three minutes it takes to verify can be the difference between a little problem and a catastrophe.

12) Inform the neighbors. If you’ve created a dangerous situation such as an exposing fire or a toxic material release, it’s no longer your little problem, it’s a community problem and seconds count. A toxic gas cloud in a 10 MPH wind can travel half a mile in three minutes. Be certain you can let everyone downwind know in seconds — rather than waiting for the community fire chief to do it while the media asks you why you just sent 100 neighbors to the hospital.

Finally, check out some of the great resources available online. Go click on the sample emergency plan and other helpful checklists.

For a free copy of the 2004 national Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs, NFPA 1600, go a PDF copy.